On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the constitutionality of Jim Crow segregation. Four years earlier, a biracial man named Homère Adolphe Plessy refused to leave the white-only car of a Louisiana train. Arrested for violating the state’s Separate Car Act, Plessy held that the law violated the rights given to Black Americans through the Fourteenth Amendment. In a nearly-unanimous ruling, the Court held that the amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce… a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” The Plessy v. Ferguson decision “placed a seal of approval on the segregationist laws that began to spread across the country” until the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education almost six decades later (Harvard Law School).
Plessy v. Ferguson is sometimes taught as a shameful historical curiosity, an aberration from a less-enlightened time in U.S. history. But the decision has far-reaching implications for our assessment of the United States before and after, all the way to the present day. The men who decided that ending segregation would be unconstitutional weren’t political wingnuts or confused first-year law students: they were the most accomplished jurists of their day. Their decision was only possible because the federal government permitted the defeat of Black political power in the South after the Civil War, a recurrent pattern most recently seen in the shameful liberal retreat from “Black Lives Matter” to “Fund the Police.” A current of Black resistance runs from Homère Plessy through the Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s to the social movements of 2023. And U.S. pride in ending decades of legally-enforced apartheid masks the horrifying truth that racial segregation not only continued—but intensified.
• Follow and support IntegrateNYC, the Education Law Center, and the Philadelphia Student Union to fight educational apartheid.
• Follow and support EBPREC, Tenants Together, and Community Movement Builders to resist gentrification made possible through the legacy of redlining and segregation.
After the Civil War, the federal government instituted forceful policies to empower Black residents of the former Confederacy. During Radical Reconstruction, over six hundred Black representatives were elected to state legislatures in the South. The first public schools were created, housing discrimination was made illegal, and independent Black social and political organizations were created. Many advocated that the federal government follow through on its promise to give formerly enslaved families “40 acres and a mule” from the plantations where they had been held. But instead of instituting agrarian reform, Northern Republicans began to view Reconstruction as a “misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes.” Black Southerners were disenfranchised to create the era of Jim Crow (Britannica). Homère Plessy was arrested on a segregated Louisiana train two decades after federal troops retreated and returned the state to white rule.
The Supreme Court issued rulings that Reconstruction unconstitutionally violated states’ rights. They may have had a point: the Founding Fathers were careful to give state governments enough autonomy to maintain slavery, so it’s no surprise that the document they agreed upon could justify the end of Reconstruction and the creation of racist Jim Crow laws.
But Black activists fiercely resisted. Homère Plessy was a member of the Comité des Citoyens, a civil rights organization of Black Louisianans that organized boycotts and direct actions against the Separate Car Act before arranging for Plessy to be arrested so that they might argue their case before the Supreme Court. The strategy of using protest alongside a federal court case to challenge oppressive state laws would be copied decades later by the Civil Rights Movement. “There’s a remarkable degree of continuity between the activists who brought the Plessy case,” says Harvard Law School’s Kenneth Mack, “and what the civil rights movement of the 20th century will do” (Harvard).
It wouldn’t be until 1954 that the Supreme Court would rule that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” marking the end of legal segregation in the United States. But de facto residential segregation is increasing today (NBC News), creating segregated hospitals, schools, and transportation systems—the very things permitted by Plessy v. Ferguson.
Though we recognize today that Jim Crow laws were anti-Black, on the surface, they were as race-neutral as contemporary legislation. Louisiana’s Separate Car Act didn’t state that cars for Black passengers had to be terrible, just that white and non-white passengers needed to ride separate cars—though in practice, the train cars for white people were always far better.
“As is widely known, in the Brown decision itself the Court went out of its way not to say that segregation laws were promulgated with racist intent. And we’re having the same debate today: There is a law that is passed that is alleged to be discriminatory against a minority group. But the law is neutral on its face,” says Mack (Harvard).
That’s why it’s so important that the lineage of struggle that connected Homère Plessy to the Civil Rights Movement continues today. Black and Brown communities are resisting gentrification with tactics developed during the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s (LISC). Youth-led organizations are fighting for resourced, integrated, and responsive schools after a century after youth and community organizers forced the desegregation of southern schools.
The fight of Homère Plessy has an urgent relevance to a nation whose white residents today live almost exclusively in majority-white neighborhoods and whose social circles are 91% white, with average household wealth over 10x that of Black families. Today, we must continue this challenge and win the struggle that Plessy and countless others fought before us.
• In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Fourteenth Amendment allowed segregation in “separate but equal” facilities.
• Plessy was an activist in a struggle that inspired the Civil Rights Movement and activists today.
• Though legal segregation ended with the Civil Rights Movement, racial segregation is increasing today.