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Plessy v. Ferguson

The landmark case Plessy versus Ferguson questioned if separate but equal accommodations for Black and White Americans violated the 14th Amendment. Despite the 13th Amendment ending slavery, racial discrimination persisted. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of separate but equal facilities, legitimizing Jim Crow laws for nearly 60 years.

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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Michael Fulcher
    They keep mentioning the "redeemer movement". What was that? Also who was Ferguson?
    (20 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      In United States history, the Redeemers were a white political coalition in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. Redeemers were the southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats, the conservative, pro-business faction in the Democratic Party, who pursued a policy of Redemption, seeking to oust the Radical Republican coalition of freedmen, "carpetbaggers", and "scalawags". They generally were led by the rich landowners, businessmen and professionals, and dominated Southern politics in most areas from the 1870s to the 1910.

      (8 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Kishore Karthick
    At it was said that his case reached the Supreme Court in the year 1896. But wasn’t there a law that said African Americans can’t sue any white or fight against one in a court? Requesting clarification..
    (13 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      I believe you're referring to Dred Scott v. Sandford; that case (in 1857) set the rule that African Americans were essentially not citizens and thus could not sue in court. While no Supreme Court decision directly overturned Dred Scott, the 14th Amendment (1868) essentially gave blacks their citizenship. Hope that I helped.
      (18 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Geovany Diaz
    Does this mean the ending of white and blacks being separated?
    (7 votes)
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  • cacteye purple style avatar for user Ayla
    So, here's my question. Would the average person see the segregation as just a normality of life? Take sex segregation, like in children's clothing departments. When you take your kid to the mall for clothes, and you go in a store, there's the boys' and the girls' and we rarely think much of it and head straight for the area that matches the child's gender. I know this isn't quite the same as racial segregation, but you get the idea.

    Basically, was it just normal to go to the bathrooms, go to the "Colored bathrooms" and not think twice about it?
    (7 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      How would you feel if you were forced to sit in a different section at restaurants or had to use a different bathroom or had to sit in the back of the bus or the back of the airplane? Or your children had to attend a different school - that was almost certainly grossly underfunded - than the schools of white children. And you can't use the same water fountain either. And you can't enter the store from the same front entrance that Whites do and you have to enter from an entrance on the side or the back. Would that make you feel that you were being treated as an "equal"? Would that be "no big deal" that you would "just get used to"?

      And if you didn't follow these rules you could get verbally harassed and/or physically abused by White citizens who had no fear of reprisal and/or have the police called on you who might spray you with a high-pressure fire hose that could knock you down, spray tear gas in your face, unleash their dogs on you or maybe beat you with a club.

      I'm not aiming to be harsh or judgmental, and I know you are a well-intended young person who has genuine questions. But I think it's important to give you the truth by attempting to provide an honest but frank idea of how it was and how absolutely demoralizing and, as David says, dehumanizing those conditions were. I applaud your efforts to educate yourself and wish you success and good luck.
      (18 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user Zob Rombie
    Around , Maltz mentions that the Supreme Court viewed public accommodations as private, and that the right to use said accommodations are private rights rather than civil. Aside from the madness of all of the other views and decisions being made at the time, how does that even make sense? It contradicts itself completely. How were the members of the Supreme Court during the time able to get away with viewing the use of PUBLIC accommodations being a PRIVATE right rather than a civil right? Were things really that preverted during the time?
    (9 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      Laws are written, interpreted and enforced by people. Therefore the laws are only as moral as the people at the time. There were some pretty self-interested, hateful, immoral people at that time willing to say and do whatever they thought was good for themselves without regard for morality, or the overall good of their fellow citizens or their country. Sound familiar?
      (7 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Estelle
    If a white person decided that they wanted to sit in a colored compartment could they sit there?
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Trivia Master
    Ok, so maybe the South could get away with "separate but equal" train cars and schools and whatnot in that time period. But the separated public accommodations clearly weren't equal (black schools are underfunded, black water fountains are more likely to contain dirty/contaminated water, etc). Why didn't anybody sue for that?
    (4 votes)
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Video transcript

- [Kim] Long before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Homer Plessy boarded a train car in New Orleans to protest Jim Crow segregation laws. Plessy was arrested and convicted in Louisiana, but his test case for segregated public transportation reached the Supreme Court in 1896. This is Kim from Khan Academy. And today, we're learning more about the landmark case, Plessy versus Ferguson, which asks whether separate but equal accommodations for Black and White Americans violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. To learn more about this case, I spoke with two experts. Jamal Greene is the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Earl Maltz is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School. So Professor Greene, could you kind of set the stage for us in this time period? After the Civil War, what was the legal and social status of former slaves? - [Jamal] Well, of course, the Civil War ended in 1865. And it was fought in large part over the institution of chattel slavery, so slavery of, generally speaking, Black or African American slaves. And right at the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was passed. And the 13th Amendment basically said that there shouldn't be any slavery or involuntary servitude in the United States. So the institution of slavery itself had ended, but the passage of the 13th Amendment did not mean that former slaves had equal rights. A number of the former states of the Confederacy, the, generally speaking, Southern states, passed a number of racially discriminatory laws immediately after the end of slavery that prevented Black Americans from participating in civil society on equal terms with Whites. For example, laws restricting the ability of Blacks to enter into and enforce contracts, restricting the ability of Blacks to own property, to sit on juries, to vote, to testify in court, and so forth. So there were a number of openly discriminatory laws. There were also laws that required Blacks to be employed on pain of having their labor forced, so ways of essentially re-instituting the institution of slavery. - [Kim] And these were known as the Black Codes. - [Jamal] Those were known as the Black Codes, exactly. - [Earl] In the Reconstruction period between say the late 1860s and the mid 1870s, there was a concerted effort by the federal government to improve the social status and political rights of African Americans. In 1876, there was part of the settlement of the presidential election of 1876, the federal government drew back some. But most of the so-called Redeemer movement really took off in the 1890s. I think 1891 is when the last real effort is made by the federal government to have a serious Voting Rights Act. After that, the South is pretty much under control of the people who sympathized with ex-Confederates. - [Jamal] In both Northern and Southern states, there was widespread racial segregation. So there were laws that were basically codifying long-existing social practices of segregated housing, segregated schools, and segregated public conveyances like steamships and rail cars. But much of that changed in the years immediately following the Civil War. Congress passed a number of federal laws that banned racial discrimination, particularly in contracting and in housing. Quite significantly, in addition to the actual federal laws that Congress passed, the country passed and ratified the 14th Amendment. - [Kim] So I think one thing that is very hard for me to understand and that I've seen students struggle with is you have the passage of the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment in 1868, 1870. And these are supposed to guarantee equal protection and citizenship and voting rights for African Americans, specifically men in the 15th Amendment. And then, you have Jim Crow. So how did we get from this moment after the Civil War where things really seem like they're looking up in terms of African American citizenship to the system of Jim Crow that's going to persist into the 1960s and 70s. - [Jamal] The Civil War did not end racism. It simply ended slavery. And so, we're still living in a racist society in which residential and school segregation remained both in Southern states and in Northern states notwithstanding the Civil Rights Amendments. And in Southern states, Reconstruction, the process of trying to bring former slaves fully into civil society, was enforced by the presence of federal troops in Southern states on the theory, the very well-founded theory, that states that had just gone to war in order to perpetuate the institution of slavery were not going to willingly adopt equal rights for the former slaves that they had just been holding in bondage. And so, there was a federal military occupation of a number of former Confederate states for a good decade plus after the Civil War really ending in 1877. - [Earl] And at that point, again through the Redeemer movement, people who were the White power structure, most of which had sympathized with the Secessionist Movement, the White power structure and its successors took power back in the beginning and mid 1870s in the Southern states. And as part of their campaign, they imposed the Jim Crow system. - [Jamal] Slavery was not just about labor. It was really a system of racial hierarchy. And many in the United States remained committed to that system even after bondage itself ended. And if you don't have the political will within the Northern states to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments, you had really a retrenchment of deep racial inequality within the Southern states, but not just within the Southern states, but also within a number of Northern states as well. - [Kim] So let's kind of dial into the case Plessy versus Ferguson. Who was Homer Plessy? And why did he take issue with segregation? - [Earl] Well the law that was at issue required what was in theory separate but equal accommodation of African Americans and Whites on public transportation. Homer Plessy objected to it because A, the facilities weren't really equal. And he objected to it in part because he was classified as Black, but also in general because he thought that that was demeaning. Obviously, a majority of members of the Supreme Court believed that the Southern states should have at least some leeway and to establish their the system of racial segregation. - [Jamal] And so, Plessy was in league with the railroad and with the civil rights organization that recruited him to set up a case. So he agreed with the railroad to board the White area of the railway car on a car going from New Orleans to a town called Covington. And it was agreed that the railway would ask him to leave. He would refuse. And then, he would be arrested. And once he was arrested, that would enable him to challenge the law under which he was arrested under the Constitution. The railroads didn't like this law. They didn't like this law because they didn't want to be subject to fines or liability for not properly maintaining separate cars. It was really up to the conductors to make sure that separate cars were maintained. And the conductors themselves could be fined by the state for not doing so. And they could also be fined by passengers for mistakenly putting someone in the wrong car. So the railroads didn't really wanna be bothered with this kind of law. And so, this particular railroad, Eastern Railway, was willing to agree to set up a situation to challenge the law. - [Kim] So Homer Plessy, he gets on this train and he challenges the statute. I believe he sat in a Whites-only car and announced that he was African American. And then, he was arrested. So what happened next? - [Jamal] He's arrested. And then, he is eventually charged with a crime, with a violation of the statute. And there's a fine associated with violating the state law. And his lawyers bring a claim that the law violates the Federal Constitution. So initially, it goes through the state courts of Louisiana. And then eventually, they rule against Homer Plessy in favor of the law. And then, his lawyers appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. - [Kim] So how did the court rule? - [Jamal] In the years leading up to the case, the lawyers for Homer Plessy were quite concerned about the composition of the court because they weren't sure if they could count five votes in favor of Black civil rights. Because none of the justices on the court were considered to be particularly friends of Black Americans. - [Earl] In the civil rights cases in 1883, the court had already held that Congress lacked authority to prohibit segregation in public accommodations, which meant they viewed public accommodations as something fairly private rather than a civil right, a quasi-governmental right or a quasi-public right. And that's one of the big distinctions between the majority and the dissent in both the civil rights cases and in Plessy versus Ferguson. The court ruled that in fact that so long as the state of Louisiana maintained separate but equal facilities, they could do that, that that was not prohibited by the 14th Amendment. - [Jamal] The Supreme Court in 1896 rules seven to one that the Separate Car Act is constitutional. So a state is allowed to segregate its public conveyances, including rail cars, by race. The court denies that the Separate Car Act violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. What the court basically says is: look, the law says the railway cars have to be equal, even if they're separate. And all the 14th Amendment requires is that basic equality in civil rights. - [Earl] John Marshall Harlan, of course, dissented from that. I think that it's important to understand what was the actual nature of Harlan's dissent rather than the way that it is actually portrayed. Harlan is famous talking about the colorblind Constitution, but in fact, what he says is: "With respect to civil rights common to all citizens," I don't have the exact language before me, "that the Constitution which required to be colorblind." So one of the big distinctions between the majority and the dissent is that Harlan does in fact believe that the right to use public transportation counted as a civil right, and therefore, was protected against segregation by Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. I wanna make that point because it's pretty clear that Harlan believed, for example, that maintenance of segregated schools would be constitutional. And it's also true that Harlan voted for to say that miscegenation laws were constitutional. - [Jamal] The dissenting judge, Justice Harlan himself a former supporter of slavery, who changed his views and eventually became known as a champion of Black civil rights. So Justice Harlan, the lone dissenter, one of the only Southern judges on the court. But the others were basically Northern, both Republican and Democrat. They didn't have strong views about race. They didn't have unusually strong views about race for their time. And they maintained this distinction between social and civil rights. It's important to understand in trying to understand the context of Plessy versus Ferguson that the Supreme Court used to distinguish between what it called civil rights and what it called social rights. Civil rights were basically rights to participate in civil society, and included rights like the right to enter into contracts, the right to buy property, the right to testify in court. The court understood social rights as something very different from that, which is really the right to do all of those things in the company of people of a different race. - [Kim] That's fascinating. So what was the effect of this ruling in Plessy versus Ferguson? - [Earl] There are two ways that you could look at it. That until 1954, the effect of the ruling was to say that the state governments were allowed to segregate their citizenry on the basis of race. That's one way you could look at it. Now one of the interesting questions is how much difference it would have made given the sort of culture of the Southern states even if the court had held that it was unconstitutional for the state to formally require segregation among the races. That is, that there were a lot of informal pressures which would have pushed toward segregation even if the court had said that the statute was unconstitutional. But we'll never know that. So in other words, the question in Plessy is not whether the federal government was going to mandate segregation, but rather whether the federal government was simply going to leave the states and their citizenry to their own devices in determining whether to segregate their public transportation and some other thing. - [Kim] So this concept of separate but equal is I think the most important thing that comes out of Plessy versus Ferguson, and then later will be at issue in the 20th century. So was separate ever equal in theory or in practice? - [Jamal] It was very clear at the time. And Justice Harlan says so in his dissenting opinion in Plessy that the practice of separating railway cars or any number of other public accommodations by race was not designed for the comfort of Black Americans. It was designed in order to maintain their social inferiority through legal institutions. So once you no longer have the institution of slavery, there was a felt need among many in the South to maintain the system of social relations that slavery represented. And that's what Jim Crow was all about. And everyone knew that's what Jim Crow was all about. So Jim Crow was really kind of in its infancy when Plessy versus Ferguson was decided. Laws that prevented Blacks from voting through a number of literacy requirements and property requirements and good character requirements and so forth, those kinds of laws were very much in their infancy at the time Plessy versus Ferguson was decided. And so, the whole system of segregation is really revving up in the 1890s. And the court just gives it carte blanche to continue after that. And it's important to remember that as of the 1890s, the Supreme Court had not admitted to ever having reversed one of its own decisions. Whereas your Plessy case was quite clear about this. The assumption was that once the court ruled, it was going to be an awfully long time before you could get the court to reverse itself. And that's in fact what happened. So the court does not reverse Plessy versus Ferguson until Brown versus Board of Education in 1954. And so, you had an almost 60-year period in which practices of institutionalized segregation had the blessing of the Supreme Court. - [Kim] So we've learned that in Plessy versus Ferguson, the Supreme Court took a narrow view of the Equal Protection Clause, ruling that separate but equal accommodations for White and Black Americans did not violate the 14th Amendment. Earl Maltz suggests that it's difficult to tell if a different outcome in Plessy versus Ferguson would have made much difference in the actions of Southern states if there was no political will to enforce integration anyway. Jamal Greene, by contrast, reminds us that segregation was just getting started at the time of the Plessy case. And this ruling by the court legitimized Jim Crow laws that would continue to spread for nearly 60 years. To learn more about Plessy versus Ferguson, check out the National Constitution Center's Interactive Constitution in Khan Academy's resources on U.S. government and history.