The case came from Louisiana, which in 1890 adopted a law providing for “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” on its railroads. In 1892, passenger Homer Plessy refused to sit in a Jim Crow car. He was brought before Judge John H. Ferguson of the Criminal Court for New Orleans, who upheld the state law. The law was challenged in the Supreme Court on grounds that it conflicted with the 13th and 14th Amendments.
By a 7-1 vote, the Court said that a state law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between the two races did not conflict with the 13th Amendment forbidding involuntary servitude, nor did it tend to reestablish such a condition.
The Court avoided discussion of the protection granted by the clause in the 14th Amendment that forbids the states to make laws depriving citizens of their “privileges or immunities,” but instead cited such laws in other states as a “reasonable” exercise of their authority under the police power. The purpose of the 14th Amendment, the Court said, was “to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law…. Laws … requiring their separation … do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race.” The argument against segregation laws was false because of the “assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is … solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
The lone dissenter, Kentuckian and former slave owner Justice John Marshall Harlan, denied that a legislature could differentiate on the basis of race with regard to civil rights. He wrote: “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race,” but the Constitution recognizes “no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens.” Harlan continued: “Our Constitution is color-blind…. In respect of civil rights all citizens are equal before the law.” The Court’s majority opinion, he pointed out, gave power to the states “to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens.”
Following the Plessy decision, restrictive legislation based on race continued and expanded steadily, and its reasoning was not overturned until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.