The Separate But Equal Doctrine Was A Result of This 127 Year Old Arrest
The late 19th century Separate Car Act enacted by the state of Louisiana required separate “but equal” railway cars for Blacks and whites. It also prohibited folks from entering the cars designated for people outside of their race. The question that the United States Supreme Court sought to answer in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson was the following: Does the Separate Car Act violate the Fourteenth Amendment? These are the events that led up to the landmark Supreme Court case.
In 1891, a group known as the Comite des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), a group of New Orleans residents who wanted to have the Act repealed, obtained legal counsel and planned to test the Act’s constitutionality by way of demonstration. With intent to prove that the law could not be consistently applied given the blurred lines between the conceptual races of white and “colored”, the Committee asked Homer Adolph Plessy to purposely violate the law.
Plessy bought a first-class ticket to Covington, settled into the train car, and was eventually asked by the conductor if he was a colored man. Long story short, Plessy, who was 7/8 white but considered Black because of his status as an octoroon by Louisiana law, was asked to leave the Whites Only car of a Louisiana train on June 7, 1892, he refused, was arrested, and charged with violating the Separate Car Act.
After the Committee posted a $500 bond for Plessy’s release from jail, it took four months for his arraignment. His legal counsel planned to argue that the Act was unconstitutional because it violated the 13th amendment and denied Plessy equal protection as guaranteed by the 14th amendment. According to historian Melvin I. Urofsky, they also argued that “the matter of race, both as to fact and to law, was too complicated to permit the legislature to assign that determination to a railway conductor.”
At trial, the majority decision ultimately ruled that “equal but separate accommodations for whites and blacks imposed by Louisiana do not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The court argued that “separate treatment did not imply the inferiority of African Americans” and that there wasn’t a “meaningful difference in quality between the white and black railway cars.” Basically, according to the Supreme Court of the United States, segregation did not equate to unlawful discrimination.
Post-Plessy, the “separate but equal” doctrine paved the way for segregation initiatives across the country. Racist policies and laws thrived in Jim Crow USA thanks to the constitutional justification for segregation that made it acceptable for places to have separate buses, schools, pools, theaters, and more for Blacks and whites. It wasn’t until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, that unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, that those norms would slowly start to change.
The impacts that Plessy had on law, policy, and the lived experiences of Black people were countless. To this day, arguments made for accommodations and spaces that are separate but equal can trace their ideological roots back to the majority decision of that 1896 Supreme Court case. The personal liberties and freedoms denied to Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are often the consequence of discriminatory legislative measures masquerading as equality initiatives. The circumstances that led to Plessy’s arrest, and the court proceedings that followed, highlight that phenomenon.