June 7th will mark the 120-year anniversary of the arrest of Homer Plessy, an African-American who was detained for refusing to ride in a train car designated for blacks only. Plessy, who was considered Creole, and his case, (Plessy v. Ferguson), would set in motion a series of legal battles that would change history for African-Americans for decades. The Supreme Court’s ruling against Plessy made it possible for the most severe Jim Crow laws in history to be enacted throughout the South.
Plessy was arrested under 1890 Louisiana statue requiring railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in that state to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and “colored” races. Those using facilities not designated for their race could be arrested under the statute. Plessy attempted to sit in a railroad car designated for whites only. After refusing to sit in the black railway carriage car, Plessy was arrested for violating a Louisiana statute.
Following his arrest, Plessy filed a complaint, contending that segregation stigmatized blacks and stamped them with a badge of inferiority in violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The case went to the Supreme Court where it was decided in a 7 to 1 decision that the law was enforceable. The court ruled that states could constitutionally enact legislation requiring persons of different races to use “separate but equal” facilities.
The justices argued that neither the Thirteenth or Fourteenth amendment was violated with Plessy’s arrest.
On the Thirteenth amendment issue the Supreme Court ruled:
“The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. Slavery implies involuntary servitude and a state of bondage.”
On the Fourteenth Amendment issue the court ruled:
“Laws permitting and even requiring their, (African Americans) separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race. Such laws have generally been recognized as within the scope of the states’ police powers.”
This decision led to decades of legal segregation and numerous laws that would codify the era of the Jim Crow South Although the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments abolished slavery, gave blacks their citizenship and forbade states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, in 1883, portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were struck down. This established that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress authority to prevent discrimination by private individuals and that victims of discrimination were not protected by the federal government, but that it was up to the states to protect its population from racial discrimination.
It wasn’t until the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that the Plessy case was overturned. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that opinion for a unanimous decision, ruling that separate facilities which segregate based on race are inherently unequal.
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