Saturday, December 22, 2007


PLESSY V. FERGUSON In 1890 the state of Louisiana adopted a Jim Crow law which required railroads operating within the state to provide "separate but equal" accommodation for white and black passengers. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, an African American, tested the state law by attempting to sit in a "whites only" section aboard the East Louisiana Railroad. Subsequently arrested for violating the 1890 law, Plessy was convicted in a New Orleans court presided over by a Judge Ferguson. Plessy appealed his conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court without success. He then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that Louisiana's "separate but equal" doctrine was incompatible with the equal protection clause of the Four­teenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The Supreme Court's decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U. S. 537) in 1896 reflected the then current sociological assumption that blacks were inferior to whites and that Jim Crow legislation was consistent with traditional American "lib­erties." In short, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Louisiana segregation statute. Justice Henry B. Brown delivered the opinion of the majority of the Court, arguing that the Four­teenth Amendment was not "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." Brown categorically denied that "the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority." On the contrary, he maintained that this alleged "badge of inferiority" was not the result of the Louisiana law per se, "but rather because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

In a lone but far-sighted dissenting opinion, Justice John Mar­shall Harlan wrote that "the destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law." More important, Harlan challenged the sociological premise upon which the majority of the Court based its decision: "The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race. . . is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."

Despite Harlan's dissenting vote, the majority decision of the Court prevailed. This decision had far-reaching and long-stand­ing repercussions and implications. Although the Court did not specifically declare that the "separate but equal" doctrine was the law of the land (it merely declared a Louisiana law to be constitutional), the implication was quite obvious. Moreover, although Plessy v. Ferguson specifically concerned railway ac­commodations, lower courts would subsequently utilize the Plessy decision to cover most aspects of interracial contact, including that of educational facilities. In other words, the Court's decision opened the door to a plethora of Jim Crow legislation which would continue for over a half century. In a sense, therefore, the Court "legalized" racial segregation in the United States and made Jim Crow an integral part of the) American Constitution. See also: BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, JIM CROWISM and SWEATT V. PAINTER.

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