Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)


Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 (1896) is a SCOTUS case that reinforced that “separate but equal” does not violate the constitution. The federal government allowed for racial segregation to be constitutional and due to the decisions made in this case, the fight for civil rights in the United States was set back for several decades.

In 1890, the Separate Car Act was passed in Louisiana. This law supported the “equal, but separate” train car seating (including separate train cars) for Black and White passengers. In 1892, Homer Plessy, a mixed race man, purchased a train ticket for a “whites only” cart.  In finding out that Plessy is one eighth Black, the railroad company had an officer get Plessy off of the train and arrested him for violating the Separate Car Act. In criminal court, Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled Homer Plessy as guilty and was charged. Judge Ferguson justified his rulings by stating that the state of Louisiana was free to regulate such actions due to the Separate Car Act.

Plessy did not take no for an answer.  He believed the Separate Car Act was a violation of the 13th and 14th Amendment. He decided to fight this battle in the Supreme Court of Louisiana.  The court stood behind the decision made in state court. Consequently, Plessy followed the chain by challenging this decision in the Supreme Court of the United States. SCOTUS stood behind the Act and decided that “separate but equal” laws did not imply the inferiority of one race to another. Plessy lost the case (7-1). Plessy changed his plea to guilty and paid the $25 fine.

Until 1954, the decision of this case was lifted. The Supreme Court justices, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas made the decision that the Plessy v. Ferguson case decision that legally sanctioned racial segregation was intrinsically unequal and contradicted the 14th Amendment.

First Timeline



The Union victory in the Civil War in 1865 may have given some 4 million slaves their freedom, but the process of rebuilding the South during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) introduced a new set of significant challenges. Under the administration of President Andrew Johnson in 1865 and 1866, new southern state legislatures passed restrictive “black codes” to control the labor and behavior of former slaves and other African Americans. Due to the radical measures taken by the government, in less than a decade, however, reactionary forces–including the Ku Klux Klan–would reverse the changes wrought by Radical Reconstruction in a violent backlash that restored white supremacy in the South. The Reconstruction-era came to an end when Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise, known as The Compromise of 1876, with Democrats in Congress. In exchange for certification of his election, he promised to overlook Democratic control of the South. This compromise marked the end of Reconstruction, but the struggle with racial discrimination would continue on for the next few decades.

This case was directly affected by the “Separate Car Act” that was passed in Louisiana in 1890 which legalized the segregation of public facilities. In Louisiana in 1896, Homer Plessy refused to sit in the colored car on the train. Plessy was of mixed racial heritage, and his family could often pass as white being known as “free people of color”. Since Plessy’s great grandmother was from Africa he considered himself as ⅛ black and his heritage drove him to be a social activist. 

In 1892, Plessy bought a first class ticket and sat in the “whites only” section of the train. He was later asked to move, and when he refused to give up his seat on the train, he was arrested, creating the basis for what we now know as Plessy v. Ferguson.

Procedural History

Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana (1892)

  • Plessy appeared before Judge Ferguson (October 28 1892)
  • Plessy plead not guilty- violation of 14th amendment
  • Judge Ferguson ruled against him (Nov. 18 1892)

The State of Louisiana Supreme Court (1892)

  • Upheld Ferguson’s decision, presiding Judge was Francis Nicholls (Dec.)

U.S. Supreme Court (1896)

  • Case No. 210


Does Louisiana’s Separate Car Act violate the Thirteenth Amendment? 

Does Louisiana’s Separate Car Act violate the Equal Protections Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Arguments by Petitioner

Arguments by Respondent


The Fuller court headed by Justice Henry Billings Brown decided to maintain and honor the Louisiana Separate Car Act (1890), which justified the “equal, but separate” train car accommodations according to race. 

Majority Opinion (Brown)

In a seven-to-one vote, the Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine does not violate any part of the constitution and honored the segregation laws of the state of Louisiana. The majority opinion claimed that a state law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between the two races does not conflict with the 13th Amendment forbidding involuntary servitude, nor does it tend to reestablish such a condition. The Court also reference civil rights cases from 1883 which stated that discrimination towards African Americans in any public facility does not impose/ promote slavery or involuntary servitude. However, the Court avoided discussion of the protection granted by the clause in the 14th Amendment that forbids the states to make laws depriving citizens of their “privileges or immunities,” but instead ruled that the Amendment was constituted to secure the equality of only the legal rights of African Americans, not their social rights. The purpose of the 14th Amendment, the Court said, was “to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law…. Laws … requiring their separation … do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race.” Writing for the majority opinion, Brown stated that the “legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”


Dissenting Opinion (Harlan)

Although a southerner from Kentucky, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan single-handedly opposed the majority opinion by insisting that the court had blindly ignored the real purpose behind the Separate Car Act, which was to “grant equal accommodations for whites and blacks so that the blacks would keep to themselves in the railroad passenger coaches.” As the Separate Car Act clearly had racial inferiority embedded under its words, Judge Harlan claimed that it was a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment because of the way that the Separate Car Act had interfered with an individual’s liberty and freedom according to one’s race. The Act also violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause as well. Harlan’s most famous quote from the opposing opinion is that “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” He concluded his opinion by saying, “In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case” (1857), which had declared that African Americans were not entitled to the rights of U.S. citizenship. His claim proved right, as Harlan’s dissent became the main theme of the unanimous decision of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Full Text Of Opinions

Decision Analysis

Significance/ Impact

Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark constitutional case being that it upheld state racial segregation laws, specifically in regards to the 13th Amendment. The majority opinion found that the “separate but equal” clause, specifically the separate cars in regards to the case, did not reestablish slavery or involuntary servitude. Due to this decision, the fight for civil rights in the United States was set back for several decades. This ruling set the tone in all of the south politically, which allowed white supremacy to thrive later, breeding into Jim Crow laws within the 1940s-1950s. This case is one of many that ignited the fight for civil rights for all minorities. The “separate but equal” doctrine would not be overturned until the Brown v. Board of Education Case in 1954. This doctrine lasted 60 years post Plessy v. Ferguson.

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

  • 13th Amendment
  • 14th Amendment-Equal Protection Clause

Important Precedents

  • Civil Rights Cases (1883)
  • Strauder v. West Virginia (1879)
  • Virginia v. Rives (1880)
  • Neal v. Delaware (1882)
  • Bush v. Kentucky (1880)
  • Gibson v. Mississippi (1896)

Important Subsequent Cases

Web Resources

Duignan, Brian. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” Encyclopædia Britannica. May 12, 2015. Accessed March 26, 2017.

Infoplease. Accessed March 26, 2017.

Konkoly, Toni. “Famous Dissents Plessy v. Ferguson.” PBS. February 12, 2017. Accessed March 26, 2017.

Lain, Corinna. “Three Supreme Court “failures” and a Story of Supreme Court Success.”LegalTrac. Vanderbilt Law Review, May 2016. Web. <>.

McBride, Alex. “Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).” PBS. Accessed March 26, 2017.

“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Emaze presentations. Accessed March 26, 2017.

“Plessy v. Ferguson.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed March 26, 2017.

“Reconstruction.” Accessed April 28, 2017.

Academic Book, Articles and Law Reviews

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. Plessy v. Ferguson. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, Inc., 2014.

Hoffer, William James. Plessy v. Ferguson race and inequality in Jim Crow America. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2012.

Thomas, Brook. Plessy v. Ferguson: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.


Spring 2017: Andrew Lloyd, Yu Jin Cho, Nia Tippett, Shana Hall

Tasks for Future Contributors