"The dictum of this decision enshrined 'separate-but-equal' into the fabric of society"
Prior to the Plessy vs Ferguson United States Supreme Court decision in 1896, Blacks and Whites had always been "separate" but never "equal" under the law. That decision wedded both parts of the doctrine and made them the law. The "separate" part of the doctrine was rigidly enforced; the "equal" part was tepid at best and un-enforced most of the time. The Plessy decision had its genesis decades before the actual ruling was handed down by the Supreme Court. After slaves were legally free via the Emancipation Proclamation, the period shortly thereafter was the Reconstruction Era during which Blacks experienced, at the federal level, unabridged political rights that were affirmed by three constitutional amendments and several laws passed by the Congress.
The states, however, began implementing Jim Crow, draconian laws that in essence, repudiated the 13th Amendment (the Abolition of Slavery, ratified in 1865); the14th Amendment (Civil Rights Act, ratified in 1868); and 15th Amendments (Black Suffrage, ratified in 1870). Beginning in Florida, an 1887 law was passed which held that the railroads must furnish separate accommodations for each race. This was followed by Mississippi and Louisiana where similar bills were passed in their respective legislatures in 1890, despite the presence of 16 Black legislators in the Louisiana State Assembly. (In Louisiana, it was called the "Separate Car Act" and only Black nurses attending White children and/or adults were exempted).
A group of civic-minded Blacks in New Orleans raised money and hired a prominent Republican attorney, Albion Tourge, to challenge the law. The Louisiana State Supreme Court sided with the railroad stating that the law was unconstitutional as it applied to "interstate" travel–since it was (a) federal law. Notwithstanding, racist Whites not only applied it to "intrastate" travel, but to all other segments of society that affected Black people including poll taxes and grandfather clauses. The law was constitutional "within" the state of Louisiana citing that the state could choose to regulate railroad companies that operated within Louisiana. The New Orleans group decided to press on with the case and enlisted the cooperation of the East Louisiana Railroad. (Though the group motives were racial, the railroad company was acting largely for monetary reasons–a potential increase in travel). In June 1892, Homer Plessy, a young shoemaker who was light-skinned (one-eight Black by Louisiana racial standards) boarded a railway car and seated himself in the compartment "for Whites only" and the conductor challenged him. He was subsequently arrested and jailed for violating state law. The case went before Judge John H. Ferguson in the local Circuit court as Homer Adolph Plessy vs the State of Louisiana. He ruled against Plessy finding him guilty. Plessy then took the matter to the Louisiana State Supreme Court.
In Homer A. Plessy vs John H. Ferguson, the state Supreme Court upheld Ferguson's decision and ruled against Plessy stating the state law is within constitutional boundaries as long as the accommodations were equal. However, it was evident that true equality was never the intent of the Southern laws because laws, they unequivocally stated, that required the separation of Blacks and Whites do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other. Furthermore, the laws asserted that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation and equal rights between the races cannot be secured except by enforced co-mingling. (Sixty years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "You can't legislate morality; the law cannot make you love me but it can prevent you from lynching me.")
Plessy petitioned the Louisiana State Supreme Court for a Writ of Error, which would then able him to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was granted. The hard question was: Is the Louisiana law mandating racial separation/segregation on its trains an unconstitutional infringement on both the privileges and immunities, and the equal rights of the Fourteenth Amendment? And was separation and equality compatible?
The majority of the Court, led by Justice Henry B. Brown, upheld state-imposed racial segregation with only Justice John M. Harlan dissenting. The decision sustained the constitutionality of Louisiana's Jim Crow law. It was one of the darkest days in the history of the nation's Supreme Court; it reinforced the Dred Scott decision and remained the racial legal legacy for almost six decades.
Speaking for the majority, in part, Justice Brown said, "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority; one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. The object of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality or a co-mingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either." The interpretation of the Court was that segregation did not in itself constitute unlawful discrimination. Of course, nothing was further from the truth–the way Blacks were treated in the real world. The Plessy opinion never mentioned the term "separate but equal." But the impact of the ruling reached far beyond interstate and intrastate transportation, it seeped into the fabric of society and enmeshed itself into the daily lives of all Americans. It was used as a legal tool to justify segregation especially in the South, but also in the North. (Justice Brown was from the northern state of Michigan).
Ironically, the lone dissenting voice, Justice Harlan, was a conservative from Kentucky–a borderline southern state. That smoldering ember would generate the light used later on to successfully challenge "separate but equal" as the legal way of life that lasted 58 years. Justice
Harlan said, "I am of the opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberties of citizens, White and Black, in that state and hostile to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution of the United States. Our constitution is color-blind and it does not know or tolerate classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law…. In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case…. The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of United States had in view when the adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution."
Though Justice Harlan's dissent was worthy of praise, it contained some of the perniciousness for which he riled against his fellow justices. His vision of the Constitution, while protecting the "colored" citizens, ignored other segments–specifically the Chinese, and other non-Whites. Another factor relative to the timing of the opinion is the theoretical aspect of legal decisions. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has no enforcement arm, its policies, at best, are theories dependent on the executive branch of the republic, namely the law enforcement agencies of the land. Therefore, when an unpopular decision is rendered by the Court, the people sometimes express their disdain through tepid enforcement and sometimes, outright non-enforcement.
(It must be remembered that the Governor of Alabama physically prevented a Black student from entering the university in his state despite Brown v the Board of Education, which stated that the student had the legal right to do so. Another incident was the disgruntled White citizens in Little Rock, Arkansas, who, with the blessings of the governor of the state, attacked and threw stones at Black students attempting to attend the high school in their community again after the Brown decision).
Though Plessy played a major role in the ultimate legal desegregation of the social fabric of society, he never lived to enjoy the fruits of his efforts.