Plessy v. Ferguson: “Separate but Equal”

PBS Pinchback (frequently mistaken for Homer Plessy / see comment below)

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004) Michael J. Klarman identifies Plessy v. Ferguson, along with Brown v. Board of Education as two Supreme Court cases that reflect the “dramatic changes in racial attitudes and practices that occurred between 1900 and 1950.” (4) Klarman argues that, “judicial decision making involves a combination of legal and political factors,” (5) and he applies this logic to how the Supreme Court made their decision in the Plessy case.

Michael J. Klarman aims to tell the story of how American race relations changed between Reconstruction and The Civil Rights Movement while incorporating several Supreme Court decisions into his work. He focuses on the Supreme Court decisions of the time (1895-1965) in an effort to understand and interpret how the justices decided cases involving the Constitution and race. (5) His inclusion of Plessy v. Ferguson involves the constitutionality of statutes passed by individual states that mandated segregation, or separate but equal public accommodations for blacks and whites on trains. In order to understand how the Supreme Court made their decision in the Plessy case, it is imperative to have an understanding of not only the case itself but the historical background and relevant contextual issues of the time: the preexisting legislation at the time involving race and railroads, the changes that took place between 1865 and 1896 in terms of political power, and the background of the seven Supreme Court Justices that presided over the case.

The Honorable John M. Wisdom’s “Plessy v. Ferguson100 Years Later” (available through LexisNexis) gives an account and summary of the case from the perspective of a liberal republican judge on the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In 1890, citizens of Louisiana became upset when the state passed Act 111, which segregated railway cars by race. Two years later, a group of black and white activists in New Orleans decided to test the actual equality of the separate railway cars.  Calling themselves the Citizen’s Committee to Test the Separate Car Act, the group contacted Albion Tourgee as a legal counsel and Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black, as the plaintiff in the future case. Plessy could easily pass as a white man, which would allow him access to the segregated car. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy successfully purchased a ticket for a white car on the East Louisiana Railroad.  After he was seated in the car, workers noticed that he was not completely white and asked him to move back into the colored car.  When he refused to leave, Plessy was removed from the car by workers, arrested, and jailed.

Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana was first heard by a Louisiana District Court.  Tourgee argued the case under a strong defense of Plessy’s 13th and 14th Amendment rights being denied.  Judge John Ferguson ruled that the rail company was under the jurisdiction of Louisiana state law that provided its own standards for interstate transit.  Not defeated by this loss, Tourgee and appealed the case on to the Louisiana State Supreme Court.  The court upheld the district court’s original verdict.  After short deliberation, the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  This proved to be a much longer endeavor than the previous two courts, but the case was eventually heard on April 13, 1896. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State of Louisiana with a margin of 7 to 1; in their decision, the court upheld the legality of segregated railroad cars under the policy of “separate but equal.” In his article “Plessy as Passing,” Mark Golub calls this decision “a symbol of American racial Apartheid.” (564)

Michael J. Klarman explains in his contextual summary of the case that race relations in The United States had changed significantly between the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The number of blacks lynched each year dropped between the end of the Civil War and the 1870s, but rose in the 1890s due to the “interplay between regional developments and national ones.” (11) A combination of the growing migration of blacks to the north, the desire for sectional reconciliation, The Spanish-American War, and the lessening support of the Republican Party to black suffrage resulted in what Klarman calls “a long downward spiral” in race relations (8-15).  For the most part, public opinion on the rights of blacks changed in both the north and south, and the views (or what little is known about them) of the Supreme Court Justices reflected the changes of the time.

Despite what little has been written about the personal lives and racial views of the Justices presiding over the case, Klarman points out that Edward D. White had been a Confederate soldier, Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller had led legislative opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and David J. Brewer believed that neither state law nor the 14th Amendment forbade states from segregating public schools (15-17).  These political and legal factors, along with thirty years worth of judicial precedent that supported segregation, are causes that Klarman attributes to the court’s decision. The opinions and decision of the court can be found on, which is one of the best sources for law and legal information available online.

Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and his memoirs (with an autobiographical sketch by Charles A. Kent) are a great source for primary source background on his life and the decision. Not much has been written recently on the lives of Justices Horace Gray, George Shiras, Jr., Stephen Johnson Field, but Loren P. Beth’s John Marshall Harlan: The Last Whig Justice is a great secondary source that covers the life of John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in the case.

Plessy v. Ferguson is a highly debated and pertinent topic today, and there are numerous secondary sources that cover the case. David W. Bishop’s Reinterpretation of Plessy v. Ferguson (Durham, North Carolina), Otto H. Olsen’s The Thin Disguise, and C. Vann Woodward’s “The Birth of Jim Crow: Plessy v. Ferguson” are all explanations of the case that are relevant in understanding the “separate but equal” policy that was reaffirmed by the court’s ruling.

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One Response to Plessy v. Ferguson: “Separate but Equal”

  1. Bill Jones says:

    I believe that photo is actually Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (10 May 1837 – 21 December 1921), former governor of Louisiana. (One can check the Library of Congress.) There are no known photos of Plessy.

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