Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the jurisprudence of the United States, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation even in public accommodations (particularly railroads), under the doctrine of "separate but equal".
The decision was handed down by a vote of 7 to 1, with the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the dissent written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, with Justice David Josiah Brewer not participating in this case. "Separate but equal" remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until its final repudiation in the later Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, during the period known as Reconstruction, the federal government was able to provide some protection for the civil rights of the newly-freed slaves. But when Reconstruction abruptly ended with the Compromise of 1877 and federal troops were withdrawn, southern state governments began passing Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from using the same public accommodations as whites. The Supreme Court had ruled, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), that the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to the actions of government, not to those of private individuals, and consequently did not protect persons against individuals or private entities who violated their civil rights. In particular, the Court invalidated most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a law passed by the United States Congress to protect blacks from private acts of discrimination.
In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed Act 111 that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars, though it specified that the accommodations must be kept "equal". Concerned, several black and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association, the Citizen's Committee to Test the Separate Car Act, dedicated to the repeal of that law. They raised $1412.70 ($ in 2008 USD) which they offered to the then-famous author and Radical Republican jurist, Albion W. Tourgée, to serve as lead counsel for their test case. Tourgée agreed to do it pro bono. Later, they enlisted Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black (an octoroon in the now-antiquated parlance), to serve as plaintiff. Their choice of a plaintiff who could "pass" for white was a deliberate attempt to exploit the lack of clear racial definition in either science or law so as to argue that segregation by race was an "unreasonable" use of state power.
The intellectual roots of Plessy v. Ferguson were in part tied to the scientific racism of the era, however the popular support for the decision was more likely a result of the racist beliefs held by most whites at the time.
Plessy took it to the Supreme Court of Louisiana where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson's ruling. Undaunted, Plessy appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy's behalf. One was signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips and his legal partner F. D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Only Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak for the plaintiff (Plessy himself was not present). It would become one of the most famous decisions in American history.
In a 7 to 1 decision in which Justice David Brewer did not participate, the Court rejected Plessy's arguments based on the Fourteenth Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the majority of the Court rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of blacks, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy.
When summarizing, Justice Brown declared, "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in 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 not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars, this was manifestly untrue in the case of most other separate facilities, such as public toilets and cafés, where the facilities designated for blacks were poorer than those designated for whites.
Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner who experienced a conversion as a result of Ku Klux Klan excesses, and champion of black civil rights, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court's decision would become as infamous as that in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Harlan went on to say:
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.
As an aftermath, the case helped cement the legal foundation for the doctrine of separate but equal, the idea that segregation based on classifications was legal as long as facilities were of equal quality. However, Southern state governments refused to provide blacks with genuinely equal facilities and resources in the years after the Plessy decision. The states not only separated races but, in actuality, ensured differences in quality. In January 1896, Homer Plessy pleaded guilty to the violation and paid the fine.
Plessy legitimized the move towards segregation practices begun earlier in the South. Along with Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise address, delivered the same year, which accepted black social isolation from white society, Plessy provided an impetus for further segregation laws. In the ensuing decades, segregation statutes proliferated, reaching even to the federal government in Washington, D.C., which re-segregated during Woodrow Wilson's administration in the 1910s.
William Rehnquist wrote a memo called "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases", when he was a law clerk in 1952, during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In his memo, Rehnquist argued that "I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed." He continued, "To the argument… that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory, in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are."