Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court Case, 1896

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Marker placed at Press and Royal Streets in New Orleans on February 12, 2009, commemorating the arrest of Homer Plessy on June 7, 1892, for violating the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act

The ruling on this Supreme Court case determined that racial segregation was constitutional because races and different races’ facilities were “separate but equal.”

During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, certain civil rights were considered nationwide for freed slaves. However, southern states began passing Jim Crow laws that placed severe limitations on blacks, and maintained segregation insofar as possible.

Although the Fourteenth Amendment included the Equal Protection Clause, which prevented states from limiting actions or rights of certain people, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896 maintained that segregation was permissible and necessary. According to Harvey Fireside’s book, Plessy v. Ferguson, Separate But Equal? The case essentially ruled as it did to proclaim that segregation was still entirely legal, and that ruling was not overturned until the case Brown v. Board of Education.

Background of Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896

Jim Crow laws, which were prevalent in the Southern United States in the decades following the Civil War, bolstered segregation by deeming it illegal for black people to partake in the facilities and provisions reserved for white people. Homer Plessy, a man who was mostly white but part black, boarded a white-only railroad car, and was arrested for refusing to leave.

Plessy first took his case to local and state courts in Louisiana, where the rulings were made on behalf of segregation. He was trying to combat Jim Crow laws that upheld segregation, claiming them to be unconstitutional. Louisiana courts claimed that the state can implement laws on railroads that operate within the state (such as Jim Crow laws).

Plessy v. Ferguson Case Proceedings

Plessy’s cause was noticed by the Committee of Citizens, which helped him to take his case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruling upheld the ruling of the lower courts, which had contended that because black and white facilities were separate but equal, Jim Crow laws did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which includes the Equal Protection Clause. This clause states that “no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This was not violated because the court deemed black and white facilities to be “separate but equal,” which they certainly were not.

Aftermath and Brown v. Board of Education, Supreme Court Case 1954

For nearly 60 years, racial segregation’s constitutional validity went without severe challenge. But in 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education overturned the decision made in 1896, and declared officially that separate facilities for blacks and whites were in no way equal. Thus, the court ruled that segregation of public facilities, such as schools (in the instance of Brown v. Board of Education) was not protected by the Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 demonstrated how America still retained some of its old ways even following Reconstruction after the Civil War. However, it also serves as a point in history that shows how civil rights have changed over time, especially when considered with Brown v. Board of Education, which directly overturned the Plessy ruling.