Plessy v. Ferguson
Decided in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark civil rights case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that stood for decades but was eroded by subsequent decisions and essentially made obsolete in 1956 by Brown v. Board of Education. The case upheld the rights of states to require separate but equal accommodations for whites and blacks.
Over time, the Plessy case opened doors for states seeking to expand segregation, also known as Jim Crow laws, which resulted in widespread erosion of rights including voter registration and housing discrimination.
The case was contrived by an organization called the Citizens Committee to test Louisiana’s separate but equal segregation law that purported to provide the same accommodations to whites and blacks, but in separate locations. This law stretched from schools to transportation. Homer Plessy, a free man with one-eighth African-American heritage, was recruited to sit in a railroad passenger car designated for whites only. He was known to the railroad company as being mixed race, and a private detective with authorization to make arrests was situated nearby to arrest Plessy when he refused to move from the whites-only car.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on questions of constitutionality of state laws, Plessy had first to be tried in Louisiana state courts, which it was, as Plessy v. State of Louisiana, arguing that he was denied rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically equal protection under the law. The state supreme court decided against Plessy, reportedly citing an abolitionist state’s supreme court as deciding that segregation was not created by laws and will not be solved by laws.
When the Plessy case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, it took on the name Plessy v. Ferguson as the Louisiana state court judge’s name was Ferguson.