Investigate the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy vs Ferguson (1896)

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Background and Historical context

The Separate Car Act, which was passed in the state of Louisiana in 1890, necessitated that railroads have equal but distinct accommodations for individuals of white ethnicity and their Black counterparts, with these accommodations entailing either separate passenger coaches or partitioned coaches in such a way that individuals belonging to both races were kept apart. An individual who breached this law by sitting in the wrong coach was liable to a minimum $25 fine or a 20-day jail term[1]. The passage of this law prompted the formation of the Comité des Citoyens or Citizens Committee, which comprised of prominent White, Black, and Creole residents of New Orleans and whose objective was to push for the repeal of this legislation[2]. To test the law, the Committee convinced Homer Plessy, a free-born “octoroon” whom, under Louisiana state law was considered black, despite being only of one-eighth African extraction, to board a “whites-only” railcar headed for Covington, Louisiana. The Committee had also planned to have a private detective on board the railcar to ensure that Plessy would be arrested and charged with the violation of this law and not for another offense. After Plessy’s refusal to vacate the whites-only car, the detective then effected an arrest with Plessy later being charged for the offense, convicted, and sentenced to pay an $25 fine. On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court decided to uphold the original ruling thus prompting Plessy’s lawyers to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

Analysis of Decision Made

The Supreme Court, in a 7-1 majority decision, held that the Louisiana Statute did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment since all this Amendment did was to guarantee blacks as much legal equality as was sufficient to ensure that slavery was abolished[3]. In consideration of whether the law was in breach of the Equal Protection Clause that had been laid down in the fundamentally important Fourteenth Amendment, it was opined that although the intention of this amendment was to ensure that all races were considered legally equal, it did not intend to prohibit social or other similar types of discrimination[4]. According to the Court, racial segregation legislation was within the purview of a State police power and the enactment of such legislation was not necessarily a declaration of the inferiority of one race as compared to another. Thus, such laws were permissible provided that they were reasonable, and did not seek to oppress any specific group.

However, a dissenting decision, which was offered by Justice Harlan opined that that the decision to permit racial segregation only served to create castes because it permitted the limitation of people’s enjoyment of their civil rights based solely on their race. In effect, such laws would establish White people as a dominant or superior class with Blacks as their inferiors, which was against the color-blind constitution.

One fundamental flaw of the majority decision in this case was that it failed to consider the relevant historical and social contexts thus making it inconsistent with the reality of the time[5]. It was a fact that African-Americans had continued to endure both de facto and de jure systematic discrimination in the Reconstruction period and thus it was obvious that allowing such a law would undoubtedly harm Black people. A potential alternative decision would have been to strike down the Louisiana law for infringing on the Equal Protection Clause. A potential argument here would have been that imposing a legal limitation on Black people’s rights to enjoy or travel in certain railcars solely because of their race amounted to discriminatory action, which was inconsistent with constitutional provisions and thus unacceptable.

Historical Significance

One fundamental reason why the decision in this case was of such importance is that it served to legitimize the already existing racial segregation statutes in the South while paving the way for even more segregation laws thus effectively ushering in the Jim Crow era statutes, which spread even to the North. The decision also provided precedent for similar cases for example Lum v. Lice 275 U.S. 78 (1927) whereby the Supreme Court upheld a white Mississippi public school’s decision to deny admission to a girl of Chinese-American extraction[6].

 Furthermore, by entrenching the vague ‘separate but equal’ doctrine into law, the decision helped to retard the gains made by African-Americans during the Reconstruction era. For example, the absence of clarity on what exactly constituted ‘equal’ coupled with the legislative immunity granted to states in matters of race by the ruling meant that the separate facilities provided by states to African-Americans were usually vastly inferior to those enjoyed by their White counterparts thus disadvantaging Black people. Besides this, since the decision essentially legalized the idea that White people were superior to African-Americans, it set the stage for disenfranchisement of Black voters through insidious pieces of legislation such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests.


"Full Text of "The Separate or "Jim Crow"Car Laws or Legislative Enactments of Fourteen Southern States"."Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free & Borrowable Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. Accessed November 16, 2018.

Liu, Goodwin. ""History Will Be Heard”: An Appraisal of the. Seattle/Louisville Decision."Harvard Law and Policy Review 53, no. 2 (2008), 53-73.

Medley, Keith W. We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson: The Fight Against Legal Segregation. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2003.

"Transcript of Plessy V. Ferguson (1896)." Accessed November 16, 2018.

"U.S. Reports: Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927)."Library of Congress. Accessed November 16, 2018.


"Full Text of "The Separate or "Jim Crow"Car Laws or Legislative Enactments of Fourteen Southern States","Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free & Borrowable Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine, accessed November 16, 2018,


Keith W. Medley, We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson: The Fight Against Legal Segregation (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2003), 103.


"Transcript of Plessy V. Ferguson (1896),", accessed November 16, 2018,


"Transcript of Plessy V. Ferguson (1896)."


Goodwin Liu, ""History Will Be Heard”: An Appraisal of the. Seattle/Louisville Decision,"Harvard Law and Policy Review 53, no. 2 (2008): xx,


"U.S. Reports: Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927),"Library of Congress, accessed November 16, 2018,

December 12, 2023


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