1896 Supreme Court Approves Racial Segregation
In post-Reconstruction America, especially in the Deep South, laws designed to separate the white and black races were common. This separation received legal sanction from the highest court in the land on May 18, 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision that racial segregation was constitutional. The Court’s decision paved the way for a legion of “Jim Crow” laws in the South that legally separated blacks from white services and facilities.
This state of affairs lasted in America for the next 58 years, until finally overturned in the historic U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, when the Court in 1954 unanimously ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. By contrast, only one justice—John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner—ruled against the 1896 decision legalizing racial segregation.
Plessy v. Ferguson came about due to the actions of a determined group of blacks and whites in New Orleans (who called themselves the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Separate Car Act) and especially Homer Plessy. The members of the Committee were determined to overturn a Louisiana law that required separate white and black passenger cars on all Louisiana railroads—“separate but equal.” Plessy was chosen to test the law because he was only 1/8 black and looked white. Though born a free person and 7/8 white, Plessy was legally a “black” person under existing Louisiana law. The Committee raised funds to cover legal fees, then coordinated with Plessy to test the railroad law.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a ticket and boarded a “whites only” passenger car on the East Louisiana Railroad, taking his seat and then announcing that he had African American ancestry. As he and the Committee hoped, Plessy was arrested for refusing to move to the “colored” car, and the legal test of the law began.
In the lower court decision Judge Howard Ferguson ruled against Plessy, and thus his name accompanied the appeal Plessy brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 after the Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled against Plessy’s initial appeal.
In the majority U.S. Supreme Court ruling, its author Justice Henry Billings Brown insisted that separating the races did not imply that blacks were in any way inferior. He went on to say that if blacks felt they were being treated as if they were inferior, that was their problem—or, as Brown rather callously put it: “If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
This is how three papers, two from the South, reported the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The first article was published by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on May 19, 1896:
The ‘Jim Crow’ Car Bill Declared Constitutional
The Picayune’s Bureau
515 Fourteenth Street, Washington, D.C.
May 18, 1896
No. 210—Homer Plessy, plaintiff in error, vs. J. H. Ferguson, judge, etc., from the Louisiana Supreme Court. This is the Jim Crow car case. The court, through Justice Brown, affirmed the constitutionality of the Act 111 of 1890, statutes of Louisiana, requiring all railroad companies operating wholly within state jurisdiction to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and colored races. The argument for the appellant was made before the court by ex-Solicitor General Phillips and Judge Albion W. Tourgee, the author of several books attacking the South. Mr. Alexander Porter Morse argued the case for the appellee. Briefs were filed by Attorney General Cunningham, Mr. Lionel Adams and Mr. Morse. The decision was on the lines of these briefs, which held that the statute of 1890 does not abridge any of the constitutional privileges and immunities of the plaintiff because it does not create any inequality between the citizens of the state and the citizens of the United States, or between citizens of different race or color. It provides equal privileges to all on all the railroads engaged in interstate transit. It does not discriminate unfairly between citizens of the United States or between citizens of the state, of whatever color or race. It was legislation which it was competent for the state to enact as within the police power. The Supreme Court has held that the legislature determines the necessity for and the courts the proper subject for the exercise of the police power which extends to the protection of the lives, limbs, health, comfort, morals and quiet of society, private interests being subservient to public. Plessy was proceeded against in the criminal district court for the parish of Orleans for violating the act in question in June, 1892, on a train of the East Louisiana Railroad. The plea of the defendant was overruled by Judge Ferguson, and Plessy filed application in the supreme court for writs of prohibition and certiorari, which were refused. He then took a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court. Justice Harlan gave a dissenting opinion, following his course in the civil rights cases.
This article was published by the Birmingham State Herald (Birmingham, Alabama) on the front page of its May 19, 1896, issue:
Separate Coach Law Holds
Federal Supreme Court Upholds the Decision of the Louisiana Bench—Mr. Justice Harlan Dissents
Washington, May 18.—The Supreme Court today, in an opinion read by Justice Brown, sustained the constitutionality of the law in Louisiana requiring the railroads of the state to provide separate cars for white and colored passengers. There was no interstate commerce feature in the case, for the railroad upon which the incident occurred giving rise to the case—Plessy vs. Ferguson—the Louisiana Railroad, was and is operated wholly within the state. The opinion states that by analogy of the laws of Congress and of many states requiring establishment of separate schools for the children of the two races, and other similar laws, the statute in question was within the competency of the Louisiana Legislature exercising the police power of the state. The judgment of the supreme court of the state upholding the law was therefore upheld.
Mr. Justice Harlan announced a very vigorous dissent, saying that he saw nothing but mischief in all such laws. In his view of the case, no power in the land had the right to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. It would be just as reasonable and proper, he said, for states to pass laws requiring separate cars to be furnished for Catholics and Protestants, or for descendants of those of the Teutonic race and those of the Latin race.
This article was published by the Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) on the front page of its May 19, 1896, issue:
Supreme Court Decides the ‘Jim Crow’ Car Law Is Constitutional
Provision of the Louisiana Railroad Law Is Constitutional
Washington, May 19.—The Supreme Court of the United States decided, in what is known as the “Jim Crow” car case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, that the statute of the State of Louisiana, requiring railroad companies to supply separate coaches for white and colored persons, is constitutional, affirming the decision of the court below. Justice Brown delivered the opinion, Justice Harlan dissenting.
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