On this day in 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” public accommodations are constitutional. The decision provided the legal basis for Jim Crow laws and the tradition of strict segregation. But it also provided an opening for African Americans to demand equal facilities and opportunities. After all, it was equal facilities, not integrated facilities, for which the students at Moton High School went on strike.
Two interesting points: especially in light of how some newspapers reacted to the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the press reaction to Plessy was muted. Coverage in the New York Times was almost non-existent, while the Times-Picayune in New Orleans—where Mr. Plessy attempted to ride in a whites-only railroad car—was just barely longer:
The supreme court of the United States decided to-day in what is known as the “Jim Crow” car case of Plessy vs. Ferguson that the statute of the state of Louisiana requiring railroad companies to supply separate coaches for white and colored persons is constitutional, affirming the decision of the court below. Justice Brown delivered the opinion. Justice Harlan dissented.
No doubt this scant coverage was because Plessy confirmed, rather than turned on its head, the status quo. The dog-bites-man of court cases, I suppose.
Second interesting thing: Justice John Marshall Harlan, the only dissenter on the court, was the son of Kentucky slaveholders and the grandson of Virginians. Arguing that the Constitution, if not the court, “is color-blind,” he wrote: “The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”
Justice Harlan’s grandson, John Marshall Harlan II, also sat on the court and ruled with the majority in Loving v. Virginia.
IN THE MEANTIME: Kansas governor apologizes for century of segregation.
A version of this post was originally published on May 18, 2011.
IMAGE: Boy at drinking fountain, Halifax County Courthouse, Halifax, North Carolina, April 1938 (Library of Congress)