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Plessy v. Ferguson
163 U.S. 537 (1896)
III. Facts: In 1890, the State of Louisiana adopted a statute that allowed for separate but equal
sections for blacks and whites onboard railway carriages. A committee of concerned citizens was
convened with the mission of getting this statute repealed. To accomplish their mission, they
enlisted the help of a mixed-raced, seven-eights white and one-eighth black (obligating him to sit
in the colored section), Homer Plessy to patronize the carts as anyone else would, but to sit in
the white section. They also enlisted in a specific railroad company to ensure that Plessy would
be forced to vacate the white section. The committee specifically chose this railcar company
due to their support in getting the law repealed. As part of the mission, a former Army officer,
Albion Tourgee was given full arrest powers and tasked with intercepting Plessy after boarding
the cart and sitting in the wrong section. Once Plessy was aboard the train and sitting in the
white section, Tourgee arrested him, charged him with violating the separate but equal statute,
and detained him. Plessys legal team argued that by charging him with violating the separate
but equal statute, his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated. The judge
didnt buy it and Plessy was convicted and sentence to pay a fine as the law required. Plessy
appealed his conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but their chief justice was the same
person who signed the original statute, thus cert was denied. This prompted Plessy to appeal to
the Supreme Court, who granted cert.
IV. Issues: (1) Does Louisianas separate but equal statute violate the Thirteenth and the Equal
Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
V. Decision and Action: (1) No. Affirmed.
VI. Reasoning: Per Brown. He starts out by clarifying that the Thirteenth Amendment was to
abolish slavery and involuntary servitude absent being imposed as punishment for a crime. It was
never meant to apply protections or special privileges among black people. The amendment
imposes no servitude requirement upon a business who may be asked to provide service to a
black person. The statute in question only allows for separate but equal accommodations that
are based upon the color of ones skin - something that is immutable. For those reasons, Brown
cannot see this being a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.
His tackles the Fourteenth by reminding us that the original purpose of it is to confer citizenship
upon newly-freed black slaves, as well as to ensure that the privileges and immunities of them
arent violated. While the Equal Protection Clause was designed to ensure that black people are
treated legally equal to white people, such equality cannot be imposed onto society. The concept
of separate but equal does not make blacks inferior to whites, and the constitutionality of
separate facilities based on race has been upheld for state legislatures. He finishes out by stating
that the statute in question doesnt deprive black people of access to any facilities or railroads, but
rather forces them to sit in a section according to their race. With respect to racial differences, the
Court acknowledges that no form of legislature can alter someones race, and with respect to
Plessy, he was predominately white with a hint of black. The officer who assigned him to the
black section had no authoritative power to declare him one color or another, but only based on
what he could see.
VII. Concurring Opinion: None issued.
VIII. Dissenting Opinion: Per Harlan. He begins by cherry picking all potential ways in which
the statute can be problematic. But, he does make the comment, However apparent the injustice
of such legislation may be, we have only to consider whether it is consistent with the Constitution
of the United States. (at 533) He also goes into a lecture about the idea that the railroad
functions to serve the public despite that it was constructed by a private company. He goes on to

imply that the statute does violate civil rights and is inconsistent with equality in our nation. He
agrees with Brown that the Thirteenth Amendment only abolished the institution of slavery, but
left the protections conferred to blacks to be in the Fourteenth Amendment. He spends the rest of
his decision repeating himself with respect to how the equal rights of blacks are being denied to
them with this statute that disguises itself as a way to allow blacks equal access everything while
still denying them the ability to commingle with their white counterparts. He also asserts that
while white people consider themselves the dominant race in all aspects, this Court is being asked
to determine whether the statute at hand is constitutional, not whether its right to have blacks and
whites sitting in their own separate sections.
IX. Voting Coalitions: (7 to 1). For the majority: Brown, Field, Fuller, Gray, Peckham, Shiras,
White. For the minority: Harlan. Not participating: Brewer.
X. Summary: The decision upholds the idea that states can pass legislation that allows blacks
and whites to equally enjoy access to something, but still allowing for them to be separated
according to their race. This decisions also affirms that the Thirteenth Amendment abolished
slavery and that the amendment had nothing to do with conferring rights upon black people. That
task was accomplished with the Fourteenth Amendments conferring of citizenship upon newlyfreed slaves and ensuring that no state could deny them their civil rights. Since we have no
delved into the equal protection section of the class, this seemed appropriate since it deals with
equal treatment based on race.
XI. Free Space: Briefing this case comes at an interesting timeframe. Today, there are state and
federal laws banning exclusion of anyone from what has been legally dubbed a public
accommodation. This case deals with a black man who insisted he be allowed to sit in the
whites only section on the grounds that he was 88% white. Considering the prevailing attitudes
of the time, I can understand how the officer that ejected him saw the 12% of him that was black
and just regarded him as such; the average person would have seen a mostly white person and just
assumed he was white. While not the same thing, the logistics of this case reminds me of
smoking vs non-smoking sections in restaurants from over a decade ago; there were some that
boot you if you were a smoker and invaded the non-smoking section, while a nonsmoker
invading the smoking section would just be looked at strange. Technically, given the social
culture of 2016, the nonsmoker would be considered the dominant class of people. While the
majority of states have passed laws that have forbade smoking from many public and private
spaces, I often wonder if before those laws were passed, if those statutes would have been struck
by the courts.