Steeped in History: Plessy vs. Ferguson—The Corner of Press & Royal

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Even though slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 and the 14th Amendment granted citizenship rights to anyone born or naturalized in the United States, including freed slaves, racial discrimination did not end. In fact, states continued to enact arbitrary and subjective laws that discriminated against African Americans. In Louisiana, one of those laws was the separate car act. It required separate accommodations for Blacks and Whites on railroads, including separate railway cars.

Here, the Citizens Committee of New Orleans and Homer Plessy decided to test that law.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy bought a first class ticket, boarded a train and sat in the Whites-only car. He was soon told to get up and find a seat in the in the Blacks-only car. Plessy refused. The train was stopped; Plessy was removed from it and arrested at Press and Royal streets.

All of this was expected. It was exactly what Homer Plessy and The Citizens Committee wanted to happen. They wanted to challenge this law, change it—arguing that making Homer Plessy or any Black person sit in a separate part of the train was a violation of the constitution.

State District Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled against Plessy’s argument that making him sit in a separate part of the train violated his constitutional rights. So Plessy took his case to the Supreme Court, where Plessy’s attorney argued that Louisiana’s Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

However, in an 1896 ruling The Supreme Court disagreed with Plessy’s lawyer, arguing that while the 14th Amendment Whites should not be forced to be in the same public places as African Americans. The Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson legitimized the ‘separate but equal,’ doctrine (also known as segregation or Jim Crow) as law in the United States, which went on for decades to follow.

Some historians like to stop there with regard to the impact of Plessy v. Ferguson. Instead of changing the law, it resulted in the establishment of the “separate, but equal” doctrine, which sanctioned and endorsed segregation.”

And maybe that’s one way to look at. But there is another. The ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson created a target—a clear, demonstrable policy that would be challenged 58 years later by a young NAACP attorney named Thurgood Marshall. Marshall aimed at the doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson; and in the case of Brown v. Board of Education; he argued that while many states had enacted laws using the “separate” part of the doctrine, they all seemed to conveniently forget about the “equal” part.

In the unanimous decision Chief Justice Earl Warren rejected the Plessy doctrine, declaring that “separate educational facilities” were “inherently unequal” because the intangible inequalities of segregation deprived black students of equal protection under the law. A year later, the Court published guidelines requiring federal district courts to supervise school desegregation “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.” And the Brown Case helped to ignite the civil rights movement, which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited legal segregation and the  of 1965 provided for federal oversight and enforcement of voter registration voting.

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