POLISCI 101 Chapter Notes - Chapter 4: Plessey, Equal Protection Clause
Course CodePOLISCI 101
ProfessorRaymond La Raja
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Plessy vs Ferguson
• In 1896, the case of Plessey vs. Ferguson tried to challenge the Jim Crow rules.
• The state of Louisiana passed an act that required separate (but equal) railroad
transportation for blacks and whites. Homer Plessey (an octaroon—one eighth black man
living in New Orleans). He wanted to challenge the Constitutionality of the law keeping
the blacks out of the train cars. According to the 13th Amendment, Plessey was a free
man. And under the 14th Amendment, he had equal protection under the law.
• Plessey got into the car and told the driver that he was 1/8th colored. He was arrested and
jailed when he refused to leave the white car and go into the black car.
• He and his lawyer argued that the 14th Amendment should prohibit such arbitrary
discrimination. However, the Supreme Court at that time thought otherwise. They came
up with the “Separate but Equal” doctrine. As long as the facilities are the same and
equal, they could be separate.
• The justice who wrote the doctrine said, “prejudice cannot be overcome by laws”. He
wanted to make a distinction between political and social equality. He said, “as long as
Blacks could serve on juries and vote, they had political equality”. Not much could be
done about social equality, such as letting people in private cars.
• The Justice John Marshall Harlan was a lone dissenter of the Court’s decision. He said
that the US Constitution “is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among
citizens. 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 are guaranteed by the supreme law of the land”.
• He further said that separate facilities put a “badge of inferiority” on the Blacks. Despite
his dissent, the separate but equal doctrine worked.
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