Plessy v Ferguson Decision (1896)

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Louisiana’s “Separate Car Act”, rejecting the arguments of Plessy that it violated his 14th Amendment right of “equal protection of law”.. The Court ruled that separate cars are Constitutional as long as equal facilities are provided for African-Americans.
Majority Decision (7 – 1) By Justice Henry Brown
“The object of the Fourteenth amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social equality. So far as a conflict with the fourteenth amendment is concerned, the case reduces itself to the question whether the Separate Car Act of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation The state is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order. Judged by this standard, we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public facilities is unreasonable, or violates the fourteenth amendment.”
1. What does Brown say the 14th Amendment cannot do?

2. Justice Brown said “the state is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages,
customs, and traditions of the people’.What were the ‘established usages, customs and
traditions” of the Jim Crow south that he wanted to protect?


Dissenting Opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan
“The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law…The destinies of the two races, in this country, are forever 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. This law proceeds on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.”
3. What does Harlan mean when he says ‘the Constitution should be color-blind”?
4. What does he believe is the real meaning of the Separate Car Act?


Essay (350 – 500 words)
In the Plessy v Ferguson case, the Supreme Court decided 7 – 1 that the Louisiana Separate Car Act was constitutional. Only one man, Justice John Marshall Harlan disagreed. For the first time, segregation in the United States was found to be Constitutional. This decision opened the door to segregation of anything in any state. The impact of the case cannot be over-estimated.
Justice Harlan was all alone then in 1896. The rest of the Supreme Court all agreed with Brown.


5. How do you think these two men will be judged by history? Cite specific evidence from their writings as evidence as well as your knowledge of this case to support your opinions.