On this day in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation in public transportation was constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
The effects were immediate: already significant disparities in funding for segregated schools widened, flying in the face of the vague doctrine. States that had successfully integrated blacks quickly adopted legislation that reversed the progress made during Reconstruction. These segregation laws would eventually become known as the Jim Crow system.
The principles of Plessy were cruelly (and absurdly) affirmed in the 1927 Supreme Court case Lum v. Rice, which upheld the right of a white Mississippi public school to exclude a Chinese American girl. Despite being required to go to school, yet having no school for Chinese in her area, the Court ruled that Lum had the choice to attend a private school. As blacks subsequently fled northward, many northern states adopted similar measures, albeit not always explicitly.
Always a fictional and farcical notion to begin with, the separate but equal doctrine remained openly violated yet unchallenged well into the 20th century, despite lawmakers frequently admitting, if not boasting, that measures like complex registration rules, literacy and property tests, poll taxes, white primaries, and grandfather clauses were designed to produce an electorate confined to the white race.
It was not until 1954 that Supreme Court reversed itself in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which held segregation to be unconstitutional. Although not explicitly overruled, Plessy v. Ferguson is considered de facto overturned following Brown and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It is worth highlighting the sole dissenter in Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan, a devout Christian from Kentucky, which was a slave-holding Union state during the Civil War. Initially pro-slavery, he became such a strident supporter of civil rights that he was known as “The Great Dissenter” for always standing against the Court in civil rights cases. His dissent is worth a read:
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.
But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.
It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.
In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.
As we all know, Harlan’s concerns would sadly prove well-founded.