Today in 1896: Plessy v. Ferguson upholds “separate but equal”

May 18, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryYesterday was the 58th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown invalidated a Kansas law that permitted school districts to maintain racially segregated schools.

In making this ruling, the Court found that that separate is inherently unequal – even if the school facilities and teachers are of equal quality – because the segregation policy itself “is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the [African American] group.”

And this sense of inferiority “affects the motivation of a child to learn.”

Although the ruling was very contentious at the time that it was handed down, Brown’s holding has gained widespread acceptance in the 58 years since.

However, the announcement of the Brown decision came on the 58th anniversary of another racial segregation ruling – ironically, the very case that Brown overturned.

That decision is Plessy v. Ferguson, decided on May 18, 1896

Plessy made the exact opposite finding as Brown: that racial segregation was legal as long as facilities were of equal quality.

The facts of Plessy dealt with a Louisiana law that mandated separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars.

A coalition of black, creole, and white New Orleans residents decided to take action to have the law struck down.

The coalition convinced Homer Plessy to intentionally violate the law by sitting in the whites-only car.

Interestingly, Plessy was only 1/8th African American (and 7/8th white), but was still classified as “black.”

Plessy was arrested by a private detective, who was hired by the same coalition.

Plessy, with help from the coalition, argued at his trial that the law violated his constitutional rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Homer Plessy

Homer Plessy

Plessy lost at trial and every stage of appeals, including at the Supreme Court, which, as mentioned above, ruled on Plessy’s case almost exactly 58 years before the Court ruled in Brown.

However, the irony of the PlessyBrown connection doesn’t end with the two cases’ close proximity on the calendar.

The plaintiff in Plessy made the same argument that the unanimous Brown Court espoused – that segregation puts a stamp of inferiority on blacks.

Yet, the Plessy Court rejected this argument.

Instead, the Court said, if the brand of inferiority were truly on African Americans due to segregated facilities, it is not because of the segregation law itself, but because “the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

As illegitimate as that assertion seems on its face, it becomes even more so in light of the fact that the segregated facilities for blacks – such as public toilets, cafés, and public schools – were inferior in quality, and that African Americans were treated as second class citizens in nearly all aspects of life.

It is in this historical context that Plessy is regarded as one of the most notorious Supreme Court rulings in U.S. history, often being grouped together with Dred Scott v. Sandford (which held that people of African descent are not protected by the Constitution).

But where it took a civil war and subsequent Constitutional amendments to overturn Dred Scott, Plessy was reversed only with another Supreme Court decision (Brown) 58 years later.

Today, just over 58 years after the Brown ruling, are we going to see another segregation ruling?

Considering that such a landmark case cannot be found on the Supreme Court’s current docket, this seems unlikely.

However, many proponents of same-sex marriage decry civil unions as a substitute for the actual right to marriage as a promotion of the “separate but equal” argument underling the Plessy ruling.

With President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, the issue is becoming increasingly central in national politics, and may be the next “separate but equal” battleground.

Nevertheless, if the Supreme Court were to hear a case on same-sex civil unions, it is highly unlikely that the ruling would justify the constitutionality of the institution as “separate but equal.”


The Court would want to distance itself as much as possible from Plessy v. Ferguson.