One of the more notable events in U.S. history with regard to the status of African Americans was the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson. It legitimized African Americans’ subordinate status in society, and cast segregation as a fundamental law of the land and made constitutional what became known as “second-class citizenship.”
Even in colonial times, the status of Africans in “white America” was problematic. The shift from “nonracialized” indentured servitude in the early 1600s to “racialized” slavery by midcentury was a major status change for Africans, from human to chattel. Chattel refers to valuable property or investments that can be moved from place to place. These “investments” were equivalent to owning cows, horses, or other farm animals. Not even fighting in the Revolutionary War was sufficient for blacks to gain citizenship, as the nation’s first citizenship law, the Immigration and Naturalization law of 1790, restricted citizenship to whites. After 200 years as chattel in the South and noncitizens elsewhere, blacks benefited from the Union’s Civil War victory and the outlawing of slavery with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment provided due process and “equal protection of the laws” for African Americans, and the Fifteenth Amendment struck down prior servitude as a basis for denying black males the right to vote. Known as the “Civil War Amendments,” they extended to blacks full citizenship rights that lasted for the brief Reconstruction period (1865-76).
The beginning of the end of Reconstruction, however, began with the Hayes-Tilden compromise. As a result of an electoral crisis in the 1876 election, Samuel Tilden, a New York Democrat, surrendered his electoral votes to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for removal of troops from the South. The compromise essentially ended protection for Reconstruction governments and their black constituencies.
What followed next was “redemption,” or the restoration of white supremacy that undid black gains, including their voting rights and right to be elected to political offices. Southern states began enacting segregation laws, such as Louisiana’s 1890 law mandating separate railway cars by race. In this climate, the Plessy ruling would provide a legal framework for further segregation.
The Plessy v. Ferguson case involved Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans mulatto, who was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, but was classified as African American under Louisiana law. He was arrested in 1892 for refusing to leave the white passenger car on the East Louisiana Railway. Denied that first-class accommodation, Plessy challenged the Louisiana racial segregation law under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. After losing his appeal in the Louisiana Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the railroad’s segregation policy, Plessy took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in the Slaughter House Cases in 1873, and the subsequent United States v. Cruikshank in 1876, that dealing with the widespread murder of blacks practicing their constitutional political rights at the hands of white mob violence “rest[ed] alone with the states,” not on any protections from the federal government. Even earlier, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, himself a slaveholder, stipulated that “the black man has no rights which whites are bound to respect.” These postwar rulings varied little from that of Taney and essentially encouraged the tyranny of the Ku Klux Klan. As white supremacy was being restored, the random, though ever-present violence to which blacks were subjected reaffirmed that blacks had no citizenship rights. Their assailants were seldom brought to justice.
Rather than uphold the basic principle of the Fourteenth Amendment of blacks having “equal protection under the laws,” the 1896 Court held in Plessy that things could be “separate but equal.” In his majority opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote that it was not the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment to “abolish distinctions based on color” or to enforce “a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” He added that separation of the races, a state right, does “not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other.”
Justice Brown’s reasoning was consistent with other Court rulings in this interpretation of the law. In suits to enforce the civil rights laws granting equal opportunity in public accommodations, housing, and so on, the Court reasoned that since blacks were no longer slaves, distinctions based on “race, or color, or class distinctions” had nothing to do with their denial because of prior servitude. By endorsing the railroad company’s refusal to allow blacks to ride in the “first-class” car, the status of African Americans as “second-class citizens” was established as a settled constitutional matter. Plessy froze the “Jim Crow” system in time and protected remnants of the black codes, including debt peonage and racial subordination. White supremacy as the nation’s law was upheld.
The case that overturned Plessy in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that “separate was inherently unequal” and segregation was therefore unconstitutional. In this new context, it was the lone dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan in Plessy in 1896 that gave guidance in the Brown ruling. As a result of the 1954 ruling, and the civil rights movement, the basic citizenship rights of blacks (e.g., public accommodations, housing, employment, and the right to vote) were reinstated for the first time since Reconstruction.
- Blaustein, Albert P. and Robert L. Zangrando, eds. 1991. Civil Rights and African Americans: A Documentary History. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Franklin, John Hope. 2006. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African America. New York: Knopf.
- Irons, Peter. 2006. A People ‘s History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution. Rev ed. New York: Penguin.
- Katz, William Loren, ed. 1968. The Suppressed Book about Slavery! New York: Arno Press and New York Times.
- Mandle, Jay R. 1978. The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy after the Civil War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Thomas, Brook, ed. 1997. Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
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