Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537; 16 S. Ct. 1138; 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896)

Facts—In 1892, Plessy, a citizen of Louisiana, having seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood, boarded a train from New Orleans to Covington in the same state. The conductor ordered him to sit in the car for black passengers. When Plessy refused to obey the order, he was forcibly jailed by a policeman and charged with violating a state statute (contemporaneously called a “Jim Crow” law) of July 10, 1890, which required separate accommodations for white and black passengers. Plessy was convicted of violating the law, and he filed a demurrer against Ferguson, judge of the Criminal District Court. Plessy appealed when the state court denied relief.

Question—Does the Louisiana statute providing “equal but separate” railway carriages for white and black passengers violate the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments?


ReasonsJ. Brown (7–1). The object of the law is to ensure absolute equality of both races before the law. However, this is a political equality, not a social equality. The case hinges on whether or not this is a reasonable regulation. Established usages, customs, and traditions, as well as the preservation of public peace and good order, must be considered. Gauged by this standard, separate public conveyances are neither unreasonable nor contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment.

If blacks assume that this separation makes them inferior, it is not by reason of the act. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, that is sufficient. The Constitution cannot put them on the same plane socially.

J. Harlan argued in dissent that “our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” and that, rather than relieving social tensions between the races, compulsory segregation laws would aggravate them.

Note—The Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” articulated in Plessy until it reversed the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Leave a Reply