Sunday, January 4, 2015

Louisiana Lesson #1: Plessy v Ferguson

I spent part of my winter break in New Orleans. And during a cemetery tour, I saw the grave of Homer Plessy.

Plessy, as in the famous "Separate but Equal" 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

What I didn't know is that the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which was applied to schools until the case of Brown v. Board of Education, did not start out as an education case. It was a case about separate transportation on street cars. It was a transportation case (think Rosa Parks), but its impact was felt on education. 

The family grave, which includes Homer Plessy,
and is in French, says that Homer Plessy
died March 1, 1925, age 63. Photo by Ruth Kraut

Facts of the Case 
The state of Louisiana enacted a law that required separate railway cars for blacks and whites. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy--who was seven-eighths Caucasian--took a seat in a "whites only" car of a Louisiana train. He refused to move to the car reserved for blacks and was arrested.
[Editors note: Back then, Plessy was described as an "octroon," since he was only 1/8 black. I always loved the sound of that word, though not what it connotes--that someone with only a single drop of blood ascribed to a black ancestor would be considered black.]
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?
Decision: 7 votes for Ferguson, 1 vote(s) against
Legal provision: US Const. Amend 14, Section 1
No, the state law is within constitutional boundaries. The majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown, upheld state-imposed racial segregation. The justices based their decision on the separate-but-equal doctrine, that separate facilities for blacks and whites satisfied the Fourteenth Amendment so long as they were equal. (The phrase, "separate but equal" was not part of the opinion.) Justice Brown conceded that the 14th amendment intended to establish absolute equality for the races before the law. But Brown noted that "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 commingling of the two races unsatisfactory to either." In short, segregation does not in itself constitute unlawful discrimination. 

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