Today in History: Plessy v. Ferguson

On May 18, 1896 the Plessy v. Ferguson decision made "separate but equal" the law of the land.

On May 18, 1896 the Plessy v. Ferguson decision made "separate but equal" the law of the land.

Below is an excerpt about the case from my first book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.

Note that Homer Plessy was 1/8 Black (or 7/8 white!). According to the “one drop rule” if you had even one drop of blood from a person of African descent then you qualified as Black. So when Plessy sat in a rail car reserved for white people, even though he could easily “pass” as white in terms of skin color, he had broken the law.

Plessy v. Ferguson codified what became one of the most notable and insulting features of the Jim Crow era, separate accomodations and services for Black and white people.

Throughout the Jim Crow years, Black people faced the constant reminder that even though slavery had been abolished, they were not truly free.

Not until the Brown v. Board ruling in 1954 and the broader Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s did Black people begin to overturn the travesty of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.

In 1891, the Louisiana legislature codified segregation on trains, passing a law to force black people to ride in separate rail cars. The next year, in a challenge designed to reveal the absurdity of the rule, black citizens and lawmakers recruited Homer A. Plessy, who was one-eighth black (colloquially called an “octoroon”) and could easily pass for white, to test the new law by riding in the “white” car. The railroad com- pany had been alerted about Plessy’s identity and promptly arrested him after he refused to move to the “colored car.” Lawyers for Plessy argued that Louisiana’s law violated the “equal protection under the law” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plessy’s case against Judge John Howard Ferguson went all the way to the Supreme Court, and on May 18, 1896, the justices of the Supreme Court ruled that Plessy’s rights had not been violated because it was a fallacy to believe that “the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.”13 The Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized what soon became standard practice throughout the country for the next sixty years—the “separate but equal” doctrine. Had the nation’s high- est court ruled differently in this case, the color lines of the twentieth century might have been drawn much differently. In Plessy v Ferguson Americans had a choice—would they treat black people as full humans and fellow citizens? The court’s decision meant they chose not to do so, and in the years that followed many white Christians upheld racial segregation and defended it as a biblical mandate.