The Plessy vs Ferguson case is one of the most famous in recent history. It is one that captivated the public and changed the way that the law operated. But just what was this case, what did it entail and what changes did it bring about?
It’s time for Versus-All to go legal as we tackle this famous case and fill you in on the details.
Plessy vs Ferguson
Lawsuits are a strange beast. Some seem arbitrary. Remember the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and sued McDonalds? Or the guy who sued Anheiser-Busch because he wasn’t a chick magnet like the commercial promised?
Some are frivolous, sure. But there have been lawsuits, both in American history and in modern America, which have completely changed the way the Constitution is interpreted. Brown vs Board of Education, Roe vs Wade and the Scopes Monkey Trial are just a few.
What was the Plessy vs Ferguson Case, though? Let’s peek at this 1896 lawsuit, and how it impacted the civil rights movement.
Plessy vs Ferguson: Who was Homer Plessy?
Back in the 1890’s, Americans weren’t riding around in pickup trucks. To get to the Apple Store, they’d use a horse and carriage. If they were slightly more wealthy, or had more distance to cover, they’d take a train. And if they were feeling especially steampunk-ish, they’d travel by zeppelin, though that was more of a luxury in the latter part of the decade.
But although America’s history of travel is super cool, our history of racism and ethnocentricity is not cool at all. We’ve done some wretched things to people who are not white, and have unfortunately marred our own reputation by doing so.
One of the brilliant ideas that we had was to make “blacks” and “whites” ride in separate cars on trains. Completely separate cars. African Americans thought it was a stupid idea because they were humans who needed a train ride. Railroads thought it was a stupid idea because now they’d have to buy more rail cars. The only people who thought it was a good idea were the white people who thought riding with African Americans in some way challenged their status as an citizen.
So, in Louisiana, a group of really cool black, Creole and white people started the Comité des Citoyens, or the Committee of Citizens. They wanted to repeal the law because they thought it was stupid, too. And in 1892, they convinced Homer Plessy to board a whites-only railcar.
Now, Homer Plessy identified as a black man. But for all intents and purposes, the Committee thought he’d be a super test subject because he was, technically, 1/8 black by lineage. Mind you, Plessy agreed to act as a test subject; he wasn’t forced to do this.
To make a long story short, once Plessy was spotted in the whites only car, the train was stopped. Plessy was arrested and detained, and was remanded for trial according to plan.
Plessy vs Ferguson: Wait, What Plan?
So, we mentioned that the Committee of Citizens wanted to repeal the law that stated that blacks and whites needed to ride separately. And we told you that the railway wanted to repeal it, too.
The railroad in this story is the East Louisiana Railroad and they were fully in on the plan. The Committee took the railroad aside one day and said, “Hey, we’ve got this guy who’s going to board your train, k? We’re making him sit in a whites only car even though he’s 1/8 black. Don’t worry, okay? We’ve even got a private detective who’s going to arrest him; you don’t have to do a thing. Just sit back and watch as we bring this to the Supreme Court.”
The railroad was stoked. “That’s a damn good idea, guys! Alright, so you board Mr. Plessy, and we’ll stop the train so that your detective can nab him. Thank the gods! We were getting so tired of buying rail cars!”
And so it was. The train was stopped at Press and Royal Streets, and Plessy was put in the clinker. The first place that the case was taken was Orleans Parish, under judge John Howard Ferguson. They didn’t have much luck there, though. Plessy was issued a $25 fine and told not to do it again.
Some people charged with a crime would have been happy with that result. But not Plessy; he wanted more punishment! So he filed a writ of prohibition stating that the court’s ruling violated his 13th and 14th amendment rights. The case was bumped up to the Louisiana Supreme Court. These people weren’t biting, either. They upheld the state’s decision and told Plessy to go away.
Finally, the Committee took the case to the United States Supreme Court. In 1896, attorneys Albion Tourgee and Samuel F. Phillips submitted legal briefs to the Supreme Court, and Plessy vs. Ferguson was born.
Plessy vs Ferguson: The Result and Its Significance
Let’s look at a bit of background on this case. What’s the big deal about having to ride in a separate train car? Well, a few things.
- Whites only train cars may or may not have had better accommodations than blacks only cars. That’s neither here nor there. The point is that “separate but equal” isn’t a fair law.
- It wasn’t just train cars. It was restaurants, public drinking fountains, schools, parks, bathrooms … you name it, it was separate. And the quality of those facilities for African Americans was poor.
- Segregation laws perpetuate racism. Under Jim Crow etiquette, a black man couldn’t shake hands with a white man. A black couple couldn’t show affection in public. White motorists always had the right of way. The list goes on.
So what happened to Mr. Plessy? He lost his case. The Supreme Court decided that a “separate but equal” policy was just that – a matter of public policy. It decided that this segregation did not violate civil rights, and was not an example of discrimination. And by doing so, it strengthened the bigotry of American whites.
It wasn’t until 1954, with the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that the ruling was challenged. In Brown vs. BOE, the Supreme Court decided that the segregation of kids by race in public schools was a gross violation of their civil rights. This decision then slowly trickled to other public accommodations and policies.
So what’s the moral of this story? Well, now that you know a bit more about the lawsuit, it might lead you to think a little more about equality. Things aren’t always as they appear to be. While blacks were given “equal” status in 1870 when they were granted suffrage, things remained very unequal despite. Plessy vs. Ferguson is just one lawsuit in what could just as easily have been thousands.
And although your kids’ classmates have sported a beautiful range of skin tones since 1954, there are equality disparities there, too. Don’t trick yourself into believing that the same opportunities exist for white Americans as for other lineages. Until America sorts out her blatant disdain for all things non-white, there will be plenty more lawsuits like this one. We hope that there are.