Plessy v. Ferguson: Railroad Segregation “Separate But Equal” (04/13/1896)


Plessy v. Ferguson

Is Louisiana’s law mandating racial segregation on its trains an unconstitutional infringement on both the privileges and immunities and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Argued: 03/18/1896

Decision Date: 04/13/1896

Decision Record: 7-1; no

Justices Majority: Melville Fuller, Stephen Field, Horace Gray, Henry Brown, George Shiras, Edward White, Rufus Peckham

Justices Dissenting: John Harlan

Effect of the Decision

This case held that racial segregation between the whites and the black were considered constitutional as long as they were “separate but equal.”

In Favor

Plessy was represented by attorneys, A. W. Tourgee and Samuel Field Phillips.


Then in opposition, Ferguson was represented by attorney Alexander Porter Morse.


On the majority side, the opinion was written by Chief Justice Marshall. In his opinion, he wrote, “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. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. The argument necessarily assumes that if, as has been more than once the case and is not unlikely to be so again, the colored race should become the dominant power in the state legislature, and should enact a law in precisely similar terms, it would thereby relegate the white race to an inferior position. We imagine that the white race, at least, would not acquiesce in this assumption. The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals. As was said by the Court of Appeals of New York in People v. Gallagher: this end can neither be accomplished nor promoted by laws which conflict with the general sentiment of the community upon whom they are designed to operate. When the government, therefore, has secured to each of its citizens equal rights before the law and equal opportunities for improvement and progress, it has accomplished the end for which it was organized, and performed all of the functions respecting social advantages with which it is endowed.

Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

It is true that the question of the proportion of colored blood necessary to constitute a colored person, as distinguished from a white person, is one upon which there is a difference of opinion in the different States, some holding that any visible admixture of black blood stamps the person as belonging to the colored race (State v. Chaver, 5 Jones [N.C.] 1, p. 11); others that it depends upon the preponderance of blood (Gray v. State, 4 Ohio 354; Monroe v. Collins, 17 Ohio St. 665); and still others that the predominance of white blood must only be in the proportion of three-fourths. (People v. Dean, 4 Michigan 406; Jones v. Commonwealth, 80 Virginia 538). But these are questions to be determined under the laws of each State, and are not properly put in issue in this case. Under the allegations of his petition, it may undoubtedly become a question of importance whether, under the laws of Louisiana, the petitioner belongs to the white or colored race.”

Then in dissent, Justice Harlan wrote, “I am of opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery, as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race, and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens now constituting a part of the political community called the People of the United States, for whom and by whom, through representatives, our government is administered. Such a system is inconsistent with the guarantee given by the Constitution to each State of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by Congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I think the “separate but equal” clause could work both ways, depending on how it is used. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, it says that everyone has “equal protection under the law.” So for example, if segregation were to be used properly, like it states in this case, then maybe it’d be considered constitutional. In situations like schooling, if two different races were segregated to attend different schools, but the schools taught the exact same things and provided the same treatment for everyone, then under the Fourteenth Amendment, that would still be “equal protection under the law.” However, when segregation was implemented, that was not how things worked out. The blacks and whites were obviously not treated equally, which completely violates the “separate but equal clase.” But in other cases such as the train one that resulted segregation on trains, would be unconstitutional, for Plessy, who was seven-eighths white, was not allowed to sit on the white side of the train. There are just some cases where you cannot be “separate but equal” if you tried. Overall, the idea of segregation and “separate but equal” may be constitutional, but because in the real world, racism would be inevitable no matter what situation you consider, the result would be unconstitutional.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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