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Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education
by Claywoman   

Last edited: Monday, October 28, 2002
Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002

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A discussion of Plessy v. Ferguson and its unequality for people of color...

After the Civil War the South implemented the Jim Crow laws limiting Blacks from obtaining the rights guaranteed them. They were freemen but not free people. Now instead of being slaves, they either worked on the same plantations with no guaranteed wage, or they share cropped meaning they farmed a bit of land and when the crops came in, they gave the landowner a percentage of their crop. Most of the time, they purchased the seed, the lumber to build their shacks, and the food to carry them through that same landowner for prices guaranteed to keep them in debt and in a subtle form of servitude almost tantamount to being a slave.

One state, Louisiana in 1890, required the railroads to have segregated railroad cars, one for Whites and one for Blacks. A man named Homer Plessy, a colored shoemaker, a man with only a small percentage of Black blood (1/8) bought a train ticket and took a seat in the White only car. When asked to vacate that seat and move to the Colored car, he refused and was forcibly ejected from the train and taken to jail where he was arraigned and held for trial. His case was fought in the court systems and in 1896 The Supreme Court heard the case. His lawyers used the fourteenth amendment as his main legal point. The majority of the Court argued that he was deprived of his legal rights under this amendment but the court ruled that even though the fourteenth amendment called for absolute equality, there was no law that could abolish social distinction based on color.

Justice John Harlan wrote the dissenting opinion and eloquently stated that Plessy was deprived of his rights under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments because the Constitution did not recognize color as criteria for racial prejudice. He wrote if the states could legally use separate but equal in railroad cars, they could also pass laws requiring separate but equal in sidewalks, or where they could or could not sit in a courthouse. Judge Harlan pointed out if one segment of society differed from the dominant society; this law could be enforced against any other minority including say Protestants and Catholics or native-born citizens from naturalized citizens.

His opinion went further by saying this decision “would stimulate racial resentment and hatred.”(222) Harlan believed, “the destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together and the interest of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate be planted under the sanction of law” (222) Harlan’s fears were well founded, within three years separate but equal grew state by state until 1910 segregation extended into most segments of life and was a normal part of life.

In the decision, written by Justice Henry Brown, he found that the Thirteenth amendment was not pertinent because the Thirteenth amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude and there was no intention of making Plessy a slave nor was he held in involuntary servitude. The court found that the case pertained to the Fourteenth amendment. In his decision, he wrote “by the fourteenth amendment, all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are made citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside; and the states are forbidden from making or enforcing any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, or shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or deny to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”(223) Justice Brown cited another case, which involved not case of race, but of exclusive privileges. He wrote that the Fourteenth amendment was intended to establish the citizenship, to give definitions of citizenship of the United States and the states, to protect the Negro from hostile legislation of the states, which might be hostile to the Blacks and distinguish them from the White population.

Justice Brown further stated that because of the color difference, and one that cannot be changed by any means, they do differ from dominant society. He further stated “laws permitting, and even requiring their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power.” (227)

One of my favorite parts of his arguments is placed here, “It is claimed by the plaintiff in error that, in any mixed community, the reputation of belonging to the dominant race, in this instance the white race, is ‘property,’ in the same sense that a right or action or of inheritance is property. Conceding this to be so, for the purposes of this case, we are unable to see how this statute deprives him of, or in any way affects his right to, such property. If he be a white man, and assigned to the colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so-called ‘property.’ Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man, and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”(230) My interpretation of this is that the only people entitled to respect is the white man whereas, anyone non-white is due no such consideration because they are not members of the ‘dominant’ group. Justice Brewer did not hear the argument or participate in the decision of this case and Mr. Justice Harlan dissented.

Furthering dissention of Justice Harlan, he ventures further into the majority decision. He argues that managers of the railroad have no choice whether or not to exercise the option of allowing exceptions to this ruling. Harlan uses the examples of children’s nurses caring for their charges of a different race can ride with those children in the “Whites” only car, but if an adult needs constant care, his manservant of a differing race cannot be seated with his charge and if he does, he faces jail and fines. He also argues that this ruling could be enforced against non-citizens white or colored and thus they too would have to ride in the ‘colored only car.’ In one of his arguments I will quote from his dissention, “In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights. Every true man has pride of race, and under appropriate circumstances, when the rights of others, his equals before the law, are not to be affected, it is his privilege to express such pride and to take such action based upon it as to him seems proper. But I deny that any legislative body or judicial tribunal may have regard to the race of citizens when the civil rights of those citizens are involved.” Justice Harlan is arguing the same argument that won the decision in Brown v Board of Education.

Life in the South and some non-Southern states displayed signs forbidding Blacks from using anything with whites including swimming pools, restaurants, where they could ride on buses, what schools they could attend, which neighborhoods they could live, and riding on amusement park rides. With the implementation of the Jim Crow laws, as they became known, segregation achieved more to degrade the Blacks in the South then slavery. Meaningful dialogue and mutual respect was impossible under these restrictive laws and once implemented, the White society dismissed a whole ethnic group as viable or intelligent enough to be seen.

Separate but Equal became the law of the land until the late twentieth century with another landmark decision again by the Supreme Court. This one decision made life more repressive for the Black population and led to new laws concerning poll taxes and literacy tests that made voting all but impossible for Blacks for some eighty odd years. Jim Crow laws growing out of the Plessy v Ferguson decision were numerous. They regulated almost every facet of life, some examples are:

1. Nurses No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which Negro men are placed. Alabama

2. Buses All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races. Alabama

3. Restaurants It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. Alabama

4. Cohabitation Any Negro man and white woman, or any white man and Negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars. Florida

5. Housing Any person...who shall rent any part of any such building to a Negro person or a Negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family, or vice versa when the building is in occupancy by a Negro person or Negro family, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five ($25.00) nor more than one hundred ($100.00) dollars or be imprisoned not less than 10, or more than 60 days, or both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court. Louisiana

Justice Harlan was right, all these and more came out of this decision, a decision made without thought to the future. This decision led to the power of the KKK and the beginning of a sad part of our history until the late fifty’s and sixties.

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Reviewed by Max Blue (Reader) 1/3/2003
This is a timely and helpful treatment of a subject that lies at the heart of America. Nice going, Claywoman
Reviewed by Lawrance Lux 10/26/2002
Excellent piece. I have often wondered about this decision, and the lack of use of the definition of citizenship. Neither side considered the issue of lack of restraint of use, as granted by citizenship, of any and all public places (as contratemps private property devoted to private use). As soon as One invites in any of the Public to public access of property, One must open said property to all Citizens.
Reviewed by J Michael Kearney 10/26/2002
A great piece! Very well written, but there is a lot more background to the causes of all this. Directly after the Civil War, the almost universal view among whites for dealing with "the Negro problem" was a forced "re-settling." Even Lincoln had plans on his desk for an invasion of Nicaragua, in order to create a nation for freed blacks. They even sent a U.S. General (Walker, I believe) to go there and prepare for the invasion. All that was thrown into chaos when Lincoln was killed. In a very real sense, that assassination killed the ideal that the South demanded and the rest of the nation had acceeded to, "a separation of the races." /// Directly after the Civil War there was a general "looting of the South" by Northern "carpetbaggers," but no one even considered taking property from the white land-owners and giving it to freed slaves. That probably would have sparked a fight to the death on the part of the South and it's doubtful the West would have gone along with that either. /// What resulted was an unplanned merging...the worst possible scenario. Free blacks were left to fend for themselves, and Southern whites were placed under the heal of Northern oppression enforced by Reconstruction. History is replete with a littany of abuses by Northern whites and freed blacks committed against Southern whites during Reconstruction. All these things sealed our fate. Reconstruction enriched a few Northern opportunists, anchored blacks in poverty and miseducation, while it fostered poisonous resentments in Southern whites. It is after Reconstruction that segregation became the Law in the South and "Separate but Equal" was accepted by the Supreme Court. That too, was the worst possible "remedy," a coward's decision. Faced with either accepting racial equality and the inevtable intermingling that goes with it or total separation, Plessy sanctioned an unworkable middle-ground that swept the problem under the rug for future generations to deal with. That generation left a terrible burden on the ones that came after them. Perhaps if Lincoln wasn't killed and Walker's invasion went forward...
Reviewed by Michael Bauer (Reader) 10/25/2002
This is absolutely outstanding!!! Separate but equal - sounds like an oxi-moron - or just moronic. Thanks

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