(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on May 18, 2021.)
The Civil War ended slavery, but it did not end prejudice, racism and the unequal treatment of races in America. One-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, the highest court in our land reinforced this inequality in declaring that “separate but equal” facilities did not violate the constitutional rights of black.
With the political Compromise of 1877, the attempt by the victorious North in the Civil War to reconstruct fundamentally southern society ended. As part of the compromise, federal forces withdrew from the southern states, allowing southern Democrats to capture legislatures and reassert white supremacy.
Writing of this era in her book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson states: “All private and public human activities were segregated from birth to death ….”
Black and white children in the South studied from separate textbooks. In Florida, the textbooks had to be stored separately. Blacks could not drink from the whites-only water fountains. In southern jails, separate bedsheets were used for whites and blacks. Blacks were disallowed from trying on clothing in clothing stores. Even in death there was segregation: Black and white corpses were separated before burial.
Thus, after 1877, blacks saw the rights and safeguards of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments erode and dissipate. Disenfranchisement increased, taking away a fundamental right in a democracy—the vote.
Florida became the first state to pass laws requiring railroads to provide separate cars for “Negro” or “colored” passengers, followed by Mississippi, Texas, and then Louisiana.
The black community in New Orleans, Louisiana, decided to make a stand and test the constitutionality of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act. Passed in 1890, it provided “for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races.” It indicated that all passenger railways had to provide these separate cars, which should be equal in facilities.
Homer A. Plessy agreed to lead the charge to challenge the law. Interesting to me personally, he looked white and described himself as “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood,” as I am.
On June 7, 1892, he purchased a ticket on a train departing New Orleans and challenged the law by taking a seat in the whites-only car. He was arrested and jailed.
In the subsequent court case, he claimed that the Louisiana law violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court issued a 7-1 decision against Plessy. It ruled that the Louisiana law did not violate the 14th Amendment and stated that separate but equal treatment did not imply the inferiority of African Americans.
Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Brown wrote: “We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’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.”
Alone in dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan countered that segregation ran counter to the constitutional principle of equality before the law. “The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution.” “It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.”
The court decision codified the doctrine of “separate but equal” as a legal justification for segregation across American society—especially in the South—fortifying the system of laws and codes which came to be called “Jim Crow”. (The term “Jim Crow” originated in a song of the same name sung in minstrel shows of this era.)
The decision enabled legal segregation to spread not only on railways, but also buses, hotels, theaters, swimming pools, and schools.
Along with the Dred Scott case of 1857, this decision is widely considered the worst ever made by the Supreme Court. It took a half century for the Court to overturn it in the case, “Brown v. Board of Education” (1954) in which the Supreme Court essentially agreed with Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion of 1896. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” in public education and that segregated schools are “inherently unequal.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.
Davidson, James West et al. Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past. HY: McGraw Hill, 2011.
History.com Editors. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/plessy-v-ferguson. Accessed May 13, 2021.
“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/163us537. Accessed 13 May. 2021.
“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plessy_v._Ferguson. Accessed May 12, 2021.