Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is the Supreme Court case that had originally upheld the constitutionality of “separate, but equal facilities” based on race. It was subsequently since overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Louisiana had adopted a law in 1890 that required railroad companies to provide racially segregated accommodations. In 1892, the state of Louisiana prosecuted Homer Plessy, a man who was 7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 Black, for refusing to leave a passenger car designated for whites.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Brown, upheld the Louisiana law, reasoning that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was designated to enforce the political equality of blacks and whites but not intended to abolish social inequality. Thus, the Fourteenth Amendment did not encompass segregation, and states could permissibly exercise their police power to enforce segregation as a matter of public policy. The Court also held that the state statute itself was not based on an assumption of black inferiority, nor did it stigmatize blacks with second-class status; rather, “the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
Justice Harlan’s sole dissent stated that the law implicated civil, not just political, inequality. He noted that the law was intended not to exclude whites from railroad cars carrying blacks, but to exclude blacks from railroad cars carrying whites. Justice Harlan wrote: “While there may be in Louisiana persons of different races who are not citizens of the United States, the words in the act ‘white and colored races’ necessarily include all citizens of the United States of both races residing in that State. So that we have before us a state enactment that compels, under penalties, the separation of the two races in railroad passenger coaches, and makes it a crime for a citizen of either race to enter a coach that has been assigned to citizens of the other race.
Thus, the State regulates the use of a public highway by citizens of the United States solely upon the basis of race.
However apparent the injustice of such legislation may be, we have only to consider whether it is consistent with the Constitution of the United States.” … “In view of the Constitution, in the eyes of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a State to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.”
[Last updated in April of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]