Legal Segregation? | Plessy v. Ferguson

Mr. Beat

In episode 50 of Supreme Court Briefs, a man with lighter skin is arrested after refusing to leave the whites-only railway car of a segregated train in the Jim Crow South. #supremecourtbriefs #plessyvferguson #apgov

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Produced by Matt Beat. All images by Matt Beat, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines. Music by Electric Needle Room (Mr. Beat's band).

A special thanks to Phoebe Ferguson and the Plessy AND Ferguson Foundation.

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New Orleans, Louisiana

June 7, 1892

Homer Plessy buys a first-class ticket and boards a train headed to Covington. He sits in a vacant seat in a whites-only train car. You wouldn’t think Plessy would draw any attention since he was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. There are no known pictures of Homer Plessy, but historic records describe him as a white man. And yet, the conductor knew that he was one-eighth black, and he told Plessy he had to get up and move back to the blacks-only car. After Plessy refused to leave his seat, almost immediately a detective named Christopher Cain came over and arrested him.

Wait a second, how did this detective dude know Plessy was one-eighth black? Well, this was all planned. Plessy was acting on behalf of a civil rights group called the Citizens’ Committee. They had carefully planned for this moment to protest the Separate Car Act, a law recently passed by the Louisiana legislature that required “equal, but separate” train cars for Blacks and Whites, and defined what it meant to be...uh...“black” and “white.”

So get this. The Citizens’ Committee not only let the railroad company know ahead of time of Plessy boarding, but they also hired that private detective I mentioned, Christopher Cain, to make sure he arrested him for breaking the Separate Car Act and not vagrancy or some other crime. The railroad company, by the way, also hated the Separate Car Act because it meant they had to spend more money on additional train cars so it cut into their profits.

So it all went according to plan. Plessy later appeared in the Criminal District Court for New Orleans, arguing that the Separate Car Act denied him his rights that were protected under the 13th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The judge, a dude named John H. Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies as long as they ran within state boundaries.

So Plessy filed a petition against Ferguson at the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Louisiana Supreme Court sided with Ferguson, citing a precedent that came before the 13th and 14th Amendments. :sigh: Anyway, so Plessy appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court of the United States. And heck yeah, the Court agreed to take on the case, hearing oral arguments on April 13, 1896. Justice David Brewer wasn’t there to hear the oral arguments due to the death of his daughter, so he did not participate in the case.

The main thing the Court focused in on was the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. DID the Separate Car Act go against the 14th Amendment? The Court said “no.” On May 18, 1896, they announced they had sided with Ferguson, and upheld the law. It was 7-1. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the opinion, saying yeah, the 14th Amendment guaranteed equality for all Americans regardless of skin color, but that separate treatment didn’t mean that blacks were inferior to whites. As evidence, Brown stressed how there wasn’t a meaningful difference in quality between the whites-only and blacks-only railway cars. In other words, segregation didn’t automatically mean discrimination. Not only that, but the Court said ALL segregated facilities based on skin color were ok, again as long as both facilities were the same quality. This became known as the “separate but equal” doctrine.

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