Plessy v. Ferguson – Justice was not served!

Any sentence that has the word “man” in it hasn’t always been a neutral word. Long ago, the word “man” would always be accompanied by the distinction between “Black” and “White”. Nowadays, the distinction is not pertinent to the story. Although, this was not always the case, ever since the civil rights movement and the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which stated that separate is indeed not equal, the separation between “Black” and “White” has never been thinner.

When the Jim Crow laws were in effect, the south was extremely segregated (which is not to say that the north was not segregated in some places). However, one case stands out. Homer Adolph Plessy was a thriving Louisiana entrepreneur living in Baton Rouge. Content with people of both racial groups, Plessy had had one African-American grandparent. Even though he did not think of himself African American, Louisiana law defined him as “octaroon” which means one-eighth African American. Plessy was accused under the statute after he declined to leave the part of a train held in reserve for whites. Plessy petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court for a court order against Ferguson, the trial court judge, to end the dealings against him for criminal disobedience of the State law. However, the Louisiana State Supreme Court refused. Convicted and fined, Plessy then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The issue that stood in this case involved the never ending question: was the statute calling for separate, but equal accommodations on railroad transportation steady with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?

The answer, of course, was a yes which was confirmed by the State Supreme Court. Justice Henry Brown affirmed that even though the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was intended to implement the impartiality between the races, it was not anticipated to eliminate differences based on color, or to put into effect a commingling of the races in a means that would be substandard to either. Justice Brown delivered the 7-1 decision of the Court that upheld the Louisiana law entailing segregation. Moreover, Brown noted that the law did not in fact infringe upon either the 13th or 14th Amendments. He confirmed that the 13th Amendment functioned merely to slavery, and the 14th amendment was not planned to give African Americans communal equality but only political and civil equality with white people.

This ruling was used by closet racists and racists to justify their hatred of Blacks. A quote which was stated by a judge on the case was “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences…the Constitution of the US cannot put them upon the same plane.” This ruling, which specified that the federal government would officially accept the “separate but equal” doctrine, was ultimately used to substantiate segregating all municipal services, including railroad cars, restaurants, hospitals, and schools. Nevertheless, “colored” facilities were by no means equal to their white equivalent in certainty, and African Americans underwent throughout decades of devastating prejudice in the South and other places because of the ruling. Fortunately, and FINALLY, in the year of 1954, Plessy v. Ferguson was beat down by the Supreme Court in their undisputed ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Rather ironically, despite the fact that Brown who is a Northerner, defended the segregation of the races, Justice John Marshall Harlan, on the other hand who was a Southerner, made a single, deep dissent. He stated, “The Thirteenth Amendment…struck down the institution of slavery [and]…decreed universal civil freedom,” Harlan declared. “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan’s dissent became the major subject matter of the unanimous decision of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.Throughout those Federal actions, numerous states amended their state constitutions to do the accepted thing with the courage of the 14th Amendment.

Unfortunately, for Homer Plessy this all came too late. This case ruling did not only fail to define justice in America, but it completely disregarded the fundamental rights of of a US citizen due to the color of their skin. No immense national dispute was pursued the Plessy decision. Segregation was an issue shoved off to the corner of our national life, and would remain so for practically 60 years. No matter how much better attitudes towards blacks and whites have become over the years, it is a true shame to think about the dreadful people treated one another because of the mere fact that they have a different skin color than what was socially acceptable. The fact that higher and more ‘intelligent’ people of the law such as the supreme court justices could not even make it a fair and easy trial is an extreme absurdity to our nation and what we stood for when this nation was brought up and contradicts what we are made of!

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6 Responses to Plessy v. Ferguson – Justice was not served!

  1. pjshield says:

    Good post here. It is a shame that there is an ugly part of history that we have to remember but at the same time it speaks measures of how far we have come as a society. For hundreds of years, slavery and segregation of the classes have been accepted in advanced societies even democracy. It still happens in much smaller doses today but the trend is that we will only get more people in powerful positions that think like Justice Harlan rather than Justice Brown. Most people think racism is based on where you’re from but that’s just a stereotype. There are many different minded people all throughout the country. This is why we need people who are forward thinkers to make sure justice prevails.

  2. haleyschryver says:

    Nice job with this post. It still blows my mind people could have thought at any point in time that separate but equal was ever thought to be constitutional. It really goes to show how a major part of interpretation comes from the time in which you live. Society’s popular values influence how the Supreme Court rules in a major way.

  3. nicksalute says:

    Very good post Merna, not only was it extremely descriptive but it was entertaining as well. I completely agree with your stance of disapproval on the issue. It is a truly amazing and disheartening fact that blatant racism and support for segregation prevailed as long as it did. As we discussed in class, even though the support for segregation now seems exceptionally close-minded, the culture of that time period supported it, which gave a naive justification for many of the individuals.
    I was just discussing with a friend about the that even though substantial legislation and judicial decisions have passed to eliminate racial discrimination, it was so deeply embedded in our culture that it is still visible today. We can only hope that this mindset continues to decrease until racism disappears once and for all.

  4. ajgoldsmith says:

    I think you raise an interesting point toward the end of your post with regard to ragtime between issues of injustice and their positive resolution. In the time of modernity, we are able to discern that separate but equal is a doctrine that in practice produces great inequalities between people
    — at least with regard to the Jim Crow Laws and of practices of public segregation. However, I believe the real challenge that we face it to be able to determine what future generations will identify as the Plessy v Ferguson of the present. This requires politics that is grounded in principles that have yet to take hold. As to what case could serve in place of Plessy, I would argue that Citizens United v FEC would be a good candidate. The idea of the powerful being able to manipulate circumstances at the expense of the powerless is a theme common through both decisions. The inequality of wealth and exploitation around the world for the benefit of the elite could just as easily disgust future generations as slavery and segregation based upon race are frowned upon in the present. If we are to change the culture to alleviate some of these problems, we must develop a propensity toward re-evaluating the beliefs that we hold in order to discern whether or not they meet the challenge of universalization, promote a meaningful existence of the individual and community, and reflect the need to employ meditative thinking in a world of cold calculation.

  5. lgallar1 says:

    Excellent post, it is interesting the turn of events. These special events changed history and pushed for change. In class we where wondering if the Brown case would not have happened will we have desegregate schools or maybe buildings and parks today? I as well wonder and it is a very interesting question. Many people do not like history, but I enjoy it very much because it shows human progress and these cases are part of this progress.

  6. The United States, bastion of liberty and freedom, has a checkered past in regard to equality for all, the Constitution notwithstanding. After WW II and the exposure of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust, many Americans, including those in the White House and state governments, continued to espouse and support bigotry and institutional racism in the US while decrying it elsewhere in the world. In 1948, Truman ended segregation of the US armed forces but he resisted doing so for a long time in spite of promising the leaders of the NAACP that he would do so.

    The class discussion in POS 470 was eye-opening in terms of the efforts of those who continued to resist desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education. I didn’t realize how much legislation had been passed by various states in their efforts to uphold segregation and that it took another 10 years for change with the advent of the Civil Rights movement. Although Homer Plessy lost in his battle for desegregation with the Supreme Court, he is still considered an activist who’s efforts contributed to the cause of equality for African Americans (and us all).

    Very relevant post, thank you.

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