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Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Case #10 of 10

DAVID A.W. HITTLE                      CASE #10                                           4/1/2011



Plessy v. Ferguson

163 U.S. 537; 16 S.Ct. 1138; 41 L.Ed. 256 (1896)

Vote: 7-1


The facts of the case are these: Homer Plessy a self-proclaimed 7/8ths Caucasian – 1/8ths African American was arrested for refusing to vacate a seat in a train car that was reserved for white passengers. The law in question was the 1890 passed Louisiana law which “required that all passenger trains in the state have ‘equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races.’


The main issues in this case are these: Is the Louisiana law a violation of Plessy’s Constitutional Rights protected under the Fourteenth Amendment?


The holding in this case by a vote of 7 to 1 finds: that the statue does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, is too clear for argument.


Mr. Justice Brown opines for the Majority in this case: The Court begins be speaking about the Thirteenth Amendment as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, and states: “The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” The Court goes on to say: “Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact … have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power.” They continue: “The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate for white and colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.” The Court concludes in a very racist way I feel: “If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferiors to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane….”


Mr. Justice Brewer did not … participate in the decision of this case.


Mr. Justice Harlan dissenting.


He starts by stating: “…In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the Constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights.” “But I deny that any legislative body or judicial tribunal may have regard to race of citizens when the civil rights of those citizens are involved. Indeed, such legislation as that here in question is inconsistent not only with that equality of rights which pertains to citizenship, national and state, but with the personal liberty enjoyed by everyone within the United States.  He continues: “The Thirteenth Amendment does not permit the withholding or the deprivation of any right necessarily inheriting in freedom. It not only struck down the institution of slavery as previously existing in the United States but it prevents the imposition of any burdens or disabilities that constitute badges of slavery or servitude…. It was followed by the Fourteenth [and Fifteenth] amendments, which added greatly to the dignity and glory of American citizenship, and to the security of personal liberty….” He states: “In my opinion, the judgment that day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case… that the decedents of Africans who were imported into this country, and sold as slavers, were not included nor intended to be included under the word “citizens” in the Constitution; …that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, they were ”considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and not have rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.” He states that the recent amendments to the Constitution were meant to eradicate these principles.


The Significance of this case was: that it continued the practice of “separate but equal” The Court continued to claim that states could discriminate on people, as long as they provided for equal treatment of those people such as with the train, the bus, etc. African Americans were considered as being treated equal, because they could ride the bus, however if a white citizen came onto the bus, the African American was to move to the back of the bus. This of course would change with the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 (64) years later…