What did “separate but equal” mean?
On this date 120 years ago — June 7, 1892– Homer Plessy was arrested when he refused to leave an all-whites railroad car in New Orleans. It was no accident. A 30-year-old shoemaker born to parents who were classed as “free people of color,” Plessy had been chosen to deliberately violate the law so that it could be challenged in court.
Homer Plessy was seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth black, an “octaroon” in the parlance of the day, and in facial features, he appeared to be Caucasian. But when he tried to sit in a railroad coach reserved for whites, that one-eighth was all that counted. Plessy was arrested, in accordance with an 1890 Louisiana law separating railroad coaches by race. Assisted by the Comité des Citoyens (“Citizens’ Committee”), a pioneering civil rights group, Plessy fought his arrest all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896.
Unfortunately, this was the same Supreme Court that had protected corporations as “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment, ruled that companies controlling 98 percent of the sugar business weren’t monopolies, and jailed striking workers who were “restraining trade.”
In Plessy’s case, the arch-conservative, business-minded Court showed it was also racist in a decision that was every bit as indecent and unfair as the Dred Scott decision before the Civil War. The majority decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson established a new judicial idea in America—the concept of “separate but equal,” meaning states could legally segregate races in public accommodations, such as railroad cars and public schools. In his majority opinion, delivered on May 18, 1896, Justice Henry Brown wrote,
We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’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.
The problem with this fine notion, of course, was that every facet of life in the South was increasingly separate —schools, dining areas, trains and later buses, drinking fountains, and lunch counters— but they were never equal.
The lone dissenter in this case was John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) of Kentucky. In his eloquent dissent, Harlan wrote,
“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. . . . We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law.”
In practical terms, Plessy v. Ferguson had given the Court’s institutional stamp of approval to segregation and generations of “Jim Crow” laws. It would be another sixty years before another Supreme Court decision overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown v Board of Education.
A transcript of the Plessy ruling can be found in the “100 Milestone Documents” site of the National Archives.
This entry is adapted from the newly revised and updated Don’t Know Much About® History.