Precedents

May 18, 1896

Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson

Posted May 1, 2008 3:07 PM CDT
By George Hodak

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In July 1890, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law requiring railroads to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.”

A citizens’ group determined to challenge the act enlisted a 29-year-old shoemaker, Homer Plessy, to initiate the effort.

Plessy appeared to be white but was of one-eighth African ancestry, which made him “colored” under Louisiana’s “one drop” racial code. As planned, Plessy declared his race to a conductor; after refusing to move to a railcar reserved for blacks, he was arrested and jailed.

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s statute, thereby validating state-sponsored segregation that endured in the South well into the 20th century. In the sole dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued for a “color-blind” Constitution that “neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, did the court take a more expansive view of the 14th Amend­ment, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined in Plessy.

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