Plessy V. Ferguson

Plessy V. Ferguson was the 1896 case that ruled racial segregation constitutional, thereby upholding the “equal but separate” doctrine and legalizing Jim Crow.

During the reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, visitors to the American south were astonished at the way African-Americans openly participated in society. Following his 1885 visit to New Orleans, American essayist Charles Dudley Warner describes a city in which “white and colored people mingled freely, talking and looking at what was of common interest […] in unconscious equality of privileges.” Two years later, Florida passed the first Jim Crow law that didn’t pertain to anti-miscegenation (the criminalization of interracial couples), instead segregating railroad cars; Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky followed suit soon after.

Enter Louis A. Martinet, a creole attorney and founder of the Daily Crusader. Martinet considered boycotting the railroads but ultimately decided to establish the Comite’ des Citoyens––the Citizen’s Committee or more fully, the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law––and used his newspaper to help raise funds for a testcase . With the help of lawyers Albion W. Tourgée (lead council) and James Walker (local attorney), the Citizens’ Committee decided that they needed a multiracial plaintiff who could pass as white in order to demonstrate that the task of racial classification is far above a train conductor’s paygrade. An activist and shoemaker who was a member of the Citizens’ Committee, Homére Patris Plessy (later Homer Adolph Plessy) volunteered. On June 7, 1892, Plessy boarded a first-class carriage and the conductor (who had been previously instructed by the Citizen’s Committee) asked his race. When Plessy refused to “retire to the colored car” he was thrown off the train, handcuffed, and arrested. The Citizen’s Committee posted his bail and prepared for the upcoming legal battle. In the criminal court, Judge John Howard Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, a decision which would be upheld by both the Louisiana Supreme Court and the federal Supreme Court. Although Tourgée argued that the only effect of segregation “is to perpetuate the stigma of color — to make the curse immortal, incurable, inevitable,” the Supreme Court justices ruled against Plessy 7-1. As a recent New York Times article declares, “the ruling came to be regarded as one of the most ignominious in the Supreme Court’s history,” as it sanctioned the Jim Crow era. The sole dissenter, John Marshall Harlan, insisted that racial segregation “cannot be justified upon any legal grounds” but the ruling was upheld until Brown V. Board of Education, fifty-eight years later. "In that decision," Woodard explains, "could indeed be found, at long last, a vindication, 'a post-mortem victory'—not only for the excarpetbagger Tourgée, but for the ex-slaveholder Harlan as well."  On January 5, 2022, the state of Louisianna posthumously pardoned Homer Plessy.

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