Plessy v. Ferguson aimed to end segregation—but codified it instead

The Supreme Court’s infamous “separate but equal” ruling in 1896 stemmed from Homer Plessy’s pioneering act of civil disobedience.

Homer Plessy boarded the train in New Orleans, first-class ticket in hand. His instructions were clear: Head for the “whites-only” car and await his arrest. The June 1892 incident played out just as expected—a clockwork application of a new Louisiana law that relegated Black passengers to racially segregated train cars.

The mixed-race man’s insistence on riding in a whites-only car wasn’t spontaneous: It was an act of civil disobedience that a local civil rights organization had organized to challenge the law. Yet Plessy’s arrest led to a landmark Supreme Court case that would provide federal sanction for decades of Jim Crow segregation.

Now, nearly 130 years after Plessy boarded that train, his infraction is set to be pardoned. In a nod to the historic implications of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, Louisiana’s state Board of Pardons has recommended that Governor John Bel Edwards pardon Plessy for defying the law. The pardon’s proponents, who include the descendants of both of the men who gave the lawsuit its name, say it’s an opportunity to right a century-old wrong—one with a legacy that still resounds today.

A carefully planned challenge to segregation

The New Orleans shoemaker was a member of the Citizens Committee of New Orleans, a group formed by prominent residents to challenge segregation in the racially diverse city. The committee chose Plessy to take on a new law mandating “equal but separate” accommodations for Black and white riders of Louisiana railways.

The Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act was just one of a myriad of segregationist laws passed by state and local officials in the wake of Reconstruction, a period of federal oversight of former Confederate states that stretched from 1865 to 1877. Southern states replaced the Reconstruction-era laws with those that mandated the separation of the races. Called Jim Crow laws, these statutes paid lip service to equality so that they did not violate the 14th Amendment, which was ratified during Reconstruction and provided U.S. citizens equal protection under the law.

By guaranteeing “separate but equal” facilities, states nominally abided by the U.S. Constitution. But in practice, the “equal” facilities provided for Black citizens were usually inferior than the ones enjoyed by their white counterparts.

The committee chose Plessy to challenge the law because though he looked white (a later brief claimed he was 7/8 white and 1/8 African), but his Black ancestry would have required an entire separate-but-equal car under the law. Plessy’s act of civil disobedience followed a careful script and took place with the approval of the railroad company, which opposed the law because it would have required the purchase of additional cars to accommodate Black passengers.

Once Plessy boarded the train, a white passenger chosen by the committee objected to his presence and reported Plessy to the train’s conductor. When Plessy refused to move to the car designated for Black passengers, he was confronted by a private detective—hired by the committee—who had arresting rights. Plessy was dragged off the car, charged with violating the Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act, and duly tried and convicted.

A landmark Supreme Court case

Plessy’s legal team challenged the conviction and the case ended up in the Supreme Court in May 1896. Its defendant was John Howard Ferguson, the judge who had convicted Plessy.

During oral arguments, Albion W. Tourgée, Plessy’s attorney, told the court that the law was unconstitutional and that it flew in the face of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. “Its only effect is to perpetuate the stigma of color—to make the curse immortal, incurable, inevitable,” he argued.

The court disagreed. It ruled 7-1 that the law did not violate the equal protection clause. “The enforced separation of the races...neither abridges the privileges or immunities of the colored man, deprives him of his property without due process of law, nor denies him the equal protection of laws,” wrote Justice Henry Billings Brown in the majority opinion. Only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented.

By declaring segregation effectively legal, the opinion opened the floodgates for Jim Crow laws. The case became precedent for the official segregation of everything from dice tables to drinking fountains, streetcars, and schools. (Why public swimming pools are still haunted by segregation’s legacy.)

The legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson

Civil rights leaders continued to mount legal challenges to the separate but equal doctrine. But it remained the law of the land until 1954, when it was overturned with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the unanimous landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found that the doctrine was inherently unequal and violated the 14th Amendment.

It was a significant legal victory for civil rights activists, who had been chipping away at the doctrine for decades. The only way to justify such laws was “to find that for some reason Negroes are inferior to all other human beings,” said future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who led the defense team in Brown. “This court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.”

Brown v. Board was the beginning of the end of legal segregation in the United States. But by then, the damage of “separate but equal” had already been done. The doctrine enabled the “final full disenfranchisement of nearly all blacks throughout the South,” wrote journalist Douglas A. Blackmon in his book Slavery By Another Name.

The results of that disenfranchisement still resonate in society today. Segregation’s effects can be seen in lingering social disparities that range from housing and education to health and wealth for Black Americans. Though pardoning Homer Plessy won’t reverse the harm caused by the “separate but equal” doctrine, advocates say it is a long-overdue correction to a historical wrong.

“I too lived in the shadow of Plessy v. Ferguson,” said Louisiana pardon board member Alvin Roche when announcing his decision to vote for the posthumous pardon. “It is an honor to vote yes.”

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