#OnThisDay: Plessy v Ferguson, 1896

I had originally considered writing about the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens today, but then I was reminded that it was on this day in 1896 that the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that changed the course of American history. The case was Plessy v. Ferguson.

Plessy v. Ferguson was one of the cases we studied in the constitutional law class I took in college. The decision in this landmark case sanctioned segregation in the United States.

What happened after the American Civil War?

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United State Constitution were intended to guarantee the civil rights of African Americans in the years after the Civil War and forevermore. Some states found ways around the intent of those amendments by instituting such things as a poll tax that many former slaves could not afford to pay and literacy tests that former slaves who had been denied an opportunity to learn to read or write couldn’t possibly pass.

The result of the poll taxes and literacy tests was the disenfranchisement of black men. (This just applied to men because women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920.)

Racially-segregated public schools were the legal norm in some states in the post-Civil War years and into the 1960s. Narrow interpretation of the U.S. Constitution made these state laws possible.

The Louisiana Separate Car Act

The Separate Car Act took effect in Louisiana in 1890. It dictated that railway companies had to provide separate cars for blacks and whites and made it against the law for anyone of either race to enter a car designated for the other race.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Creole professionals in New Orleans organized the Citizens’ Committee to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act. They hired Albion Tourgée as legal counsel. Mr. Tourgée had a record as a reformer. They wanted to find a person of mixed race to serve as plaintiff in a test case. They maintained that the act could not be applied on a consistent basis because it did not define the “white” and “colored” races.

Who was Plessy in Plessy v Ferguson?

Homer Adolph Plessy was seven-eighths white and one-eighth African American. He bought a ticket to take the East Louisiana Railroad from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. He boarded a passenger car for whites. When he refused to move to a car for African Americans, he was arrested.

Mr. Plessy was found guilty and appealed the decision.

Who was Ferguson in Plessy v Ferguson?

John H. Ferguson was the judge when Mr. Plessy was tried in U.S. District Court.

Counsel for Mr. Plessy argued that the Louisiana Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the amendment that prohibited slavery.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states the following in section 1: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of laws; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Counsel for Mr. Plessy argued that the Act violated this amendment because it did not provide African Americans “equal protection of the laws.” Judge Ferguson dismissed that claim, too.

The case was appealed to the Louisiana State Supreme Court where Judge Ferguson’s ruling was upheld.

Plessy v Ferguson

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider the case, which was titled Plessy v Ferguson and oral arguments were heard April 13, 1896. The court’s 7 to 1 decision with one associate justice not voting, was rendered 124 years ago today on May 18, 1896.

U.S. Supreme Court Building
Photo by Bill Mason on Unsplash

The majority opinion in the case

Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the majority. He wrote that the Louisiana Separate Car Act didn’t violate the Thirteenth Amendment because it did not reestablish slavery or servitude. He wrote that the act wasn’t in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment because the amendment only addressed the legal equality of whites and blacks and did not address social equality. Justice Brown maintained that the law in question in Louisiana provided equal cars for the two races. He backed up his statement for the court’s majority by citing various states’ courts that allowed for racially-segregated public schools. He wrote: “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Furthermore, he wrote that the intention of the Louisiana law in question was to preserve “public peace and good order” and was “reasonable.”

The minority opinion in the case

Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, as the only dissenter, wrote in the minority statement that the majority of the Supreme Court had ignored the purpose of the Separate Car Act. To Justice Harlan, it was obvious that the purpose of the act was “under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while traveling in railroad passenger coaches.” He argued that “Our Constitution is color-blind” and does not see or tolerate citizens being divided by class. He said the act affected the free movement of both races and, therefore, violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Stating his dissent to the decision in the strongest possible terms, Justice Harlan wrote, “in my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.” (In the Dred Scott case in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote that African Americans were not entitled to the rights guaranteed by U.S. citizenship.)

By the way, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan came to be called “The Great Dissenter” because in the 34 years he sat on the U.S. Supreme Court (1877 until his death in 1911) he was often the dissenting voice, particularly in cases involving civil rights.

The separate but equal doctrine

Although the words, “separate but equal” do not appear in the majority or minority opinions in Plessy v Ferguson, that doctrine was a result of the case. The “separate but equal” doctrine made possible the continuation of racially-segregated public schools for decades.

The Brown v Board of Education of Topeka landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1954 ruled that separate but equal public schools were unconstitutional; however, in the county in which I lived in North Carolina, voluntary school integration was not instituted until 1965, and integration wasn’t mandatory until the following school year. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka essentially overturned Plessy v Ferguson.


Since my last blog post

I’ve continued to work on a short story around the May 20, 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

Until my next blog post

Be safe. Be well. Be positive. Be creative and productive.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.

Let’s continue the conversation

I attended an all-white school until the seventh grade. That year, integration was optional. Only three black students attended the school of first through eighth grades. The year I was in the eighth grade, the public schools in our county were fully-integrated. Looking back on it now, I don’t know what all the fuss was about.

How about you? Did you attend a racially-segregated school? Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below and on my Facebook pages where I post my blog.

Thanks for dropping by!

Janet

Thoughts on the US Constitution

As a political science major in college, I was required to take at least one Constitutional Law course. Intimidated by the prospect of taking a law class, I put off taking Constitutional Law until my last quarter before graduation. Much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed the class (except for the copious amount of reading it required) and 41 years later I still remember some of the Supreme Court cases we studied. That class, more than any other, opened my eyes to the nuances of how the US Constitution governs everything from voting rights to the classification of tomatoes as a fruit or as a vegetable in light of the Tariff Act of 1883.The current US election season and, more specifically, the present civil unrest here in Charlotte have brought the Constitution and certain our constitutional rights to mind.

constitution_pg1of4_ac
First page of the US Constitution

2016 US Presidential Election

The US Presidential campaigns this year have made me uneasy about the interpretation of the US Constitution. One political party has taken fear mongering to a new level. We in “battleground states” are bombarded by endless TV ads telling us if the other major party’s candidate is elected, she will abolish the Second Amendment. In a nutshell, that amendment assures our right to “keep and bear arms.”

US Constitution,  First Amendment

The same political party dealing in the fear mongering over the Second Amendment holds the First Amendment in contempt. The First Amendment is near and dear to my heart. It guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom to  redress of grievances. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1919, runs a very close second!)

US Constitution, Second Amendment

The Second Amendment gives the US Government the right to establish a military and confirms the right of a citizen to “bear arms.” I understand and appreciate the thinking behind the Second Amendment, but I believe one side of the 2016 Presidential campaign has championed it to the exclusion of the other amendments. The baseless fear mongering that, if elected, the other major party’s candidate will “take away all your guns” has reached a fever pitch. Personally, I’m more concerned that the candidate championing the Second Amendment does not see the value of the First Amendment. I believe it is the First Amendment that makes America, America. It is our rights guaranteed by the First Amendment for which citizens of many other countries envy Americans.

Protests this week in Charlotte

The riots that took place in Charlotte on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and the peaceful protests last night prompt me to reflect on the First Amendment. Rioting and destruction of property cannot be tolerated, but the right of citizens to peacefully assemble and protest must be protected. Peaceful protests can shine a spotlight on an issue and bring it to the forefront of public discussion. The prime example that comes to mind is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s led by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

The protests this week in Charlotte were the result of the death of a man at the hands of the police. The protests in Charlotte have resulted in a national discussion of race relations, the inordinate number of African-American men who have been shot by police in our country, and the distrust of police held by people of color. If any good can come out of what has transpired in Charlotte this week, perhaps it will be a more open and honest conversation in America about the racial prejudices and biases most people in our country hold to varying degrees. It is through frank public discourse that we will better understand and respect one another. I pray that something good will come out of this violent, angry, and sad week. In the meantime, I anxiously await what the darkness of tonight will bring to the streets of Charlotte.

In conclusion

The US Constitution is a living, breathing document. It has been amended 27 times as our society continually reinvents itself. It is the bedrock of our government and is constantly up for debate by citizens and, ultimately, by the US Supreme Court.

The primary purpose of my blog is to shed light on my life as a writer, and I have avoided political content until today. Inasmuch as the 2016 federal and state elections just might be the most important elections of my life, I felt compelled today to post my thoughts about certain aspects of the US Constitution.

Until my next blog post in a few days, I hope you have a good book to read and productive writing time.

Janet