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Plessy v. Ferguson Opinions, March 4, 1956

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Courtesy of Library of Congress, "Plessy v. Ferguson Opinions," The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, CBS, 4 March 1956


In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of an 1890 Louisiana law that required railway companies to provide equal, but separate accommodations for white and African American passengers either with separate cars or by dividing a car into two sections with a partition. In 1892, Homer Plessy, seven-eighths white, seated himself in the whites-only car and was arrested. He argued that Louisiana's segregation law violated the 13th Amendment banning of slavery and the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy, arguing that although the 14th Amendment was created to provide equality before the law, it was not designed to create social equality. In fact, the Supreme Court argued, it would be impossible to eliminate racial prejudice because the beliefs of society could not be changed simply through changes in law. The Supreme Court rejected Plessy's assertion that the law left African Americans "with a badge of inferiority" and argued that if this were the case, it was because the race put it upon itself. As long as separate facilities were equal, they did not violate the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court also quickly dismissed Plessy’s 13th Amendment claim, suggesting that the 1890 law was obviously not a version of slavery and the point was "too clear for argument." Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter just as he was in the Civil Rights Cases, wrote an opinion that would eventually become the standard approach to segregation by the Supreme Court beginning with the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Source-Dependent Questions

  • The Plessy v. Ferguson decision distinguished between political and social equality. What's the difference between the two? Can one exist without the other? Explain.
  • The Supreme Court argued that the Constitution and legislation in general cannot create social equality. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • The Supreme Court's argument that any feelings of inferiority held by African Americans in segregated situations were placed upon themselves came from the Court's belief that separate facilities and accommodations were not discriminatory as long as they were equal.
  • How would you respond to this?
  • Summarize Justice John M. Harlan's dissenting opinion in only one sentence.

Citation Information 

"Plessy v. Ferguson Opinions," The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, CBS, 4 March 1956. Courtesy of Library of Congress