One of the more notable events in U.S. history with regard to the status of African Americans was the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson. It legitimized African Americans’ subordinate status in society, and cast segregation as a fundamental law of the land and made constitutional what became known as “second-class citizenship.”
Even in colonial times, the status of Africans in “white America” was problematic. The shift from “nonracialized” indentured servitude in the early 1600s to “racialized” slavery by midcentury was a major status change for Africans, from human to chattel. Chattel refers to valuable property or investments that can be moved from place to place. These “investments” were equivalent to owning cows, horses, or other farm animals. Not even fighting in the Revolutionary War was sufficient for blacks to gain citizenship, as the nation’s first citizenship law, the Immigration and Naturalization law of 1790, restricted citizenship to whites. After 200 years as chattel in the South and noncitizens elsewhere, blacks benefited from the Union’s Civil War victory and the outlawing of slavery with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment provided due process and “equal protection of the laws” for African Americans, and the Fifteenth Amendment struck down prior servitude as a basis for denying black males the right to vote. Known as the “Civil War Amendments,” they extended to blacks full citizenship rights that lasted for the brief Reconstruction period (1865-76).
The beginning of the end of Reconstruction, however, began with the Hayes-Tilden compromise. As a result of an electoral crisis in the 1876 election, Samuel Tilden, a New York Democrat, surrendered his electoral votes to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for removal of troops from the South. The compromise essentially ended protection for Reconstruction governments and their black constituencies.
What followed next was “redemption,” or the restoration of white supremacy that undid black gains, including their voting rights and right to be elected to political offices. Southern states began enacting segregation laws, such as Louisiana’s 1890 law mandating separate railway cars by race. In this climate, the Plessy ruling would provide a legal framework for further segregation.
The Plessy v. Ferguson case involved Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans mulatto, who was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, but was classified as African American under Louisiana law. He was arrested in 1892 for refusing to leave the white passenger car on the East Louisiana Railway. Denied that first-class accommodation, Plessy challenged the Louisiana racial segregation law under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. After losing his appeal in the Louisiana Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the railroad’s segregation policy, Plessy took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in the Slaughter House Cases in 1873, and the subsequent United States v. Cruikshank in 1876, that dealing with the widespread murder of blacks practicing their constitutional political rights at the hands of white mob violence “rest[ed] alone with the states,” not on any protections from the federal government. Even earlier, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, himself a slaveholder, stipulated that “the black man has no rights which whites are bound to respect.” These postwar rulings varied little from that of Taney and essentially encouraged the tyranny of the Ku Klux Klan. As white supremacy was being restored, the random, though ever-present violence to which blacks were subjected reaffirmed that blacks had no citizenship rights. Their assailants were seldom brought to justice.
Rather than uphold the basic principle of the Fourteenth Amendment of blacks having “equal protection under the laws,” the 1896 Court held in Plessy that things could be “separate but equal.” In his majority opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote that it was not the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment to “abolish distinctions based on color” or to enforce “a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” He added that separation of the races, a state right, does “not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other.”
Justice Brown’s reasoning was consistent with other Court rulings in this interpretation of the law. In suits to enforce the civil rights laws granting equal opportunity in public accommodations, housing, and so on, the Court reasoned that since blacks were no longer slaves, distinctions based on “race, or color, or class distinctions” had nothing to do with their denial because of prior servitude. By endorsing the railroad company’s refusal to allow blacks to ride in the “first-class” car, the status of African Americans as “second-class citizens” was established as a settled constitutional matter. Plessy froze the “Jim Crow” system in time and protected remnants of the black codes, including debt peonage and racial subordination. White supremacy as the nation’s law was upheld.
The case that overturned Plessy in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that “separate was inherently unequal” and segregation was therefore unconstitutional. In this new context, it was the lone dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan in Plessy in 1896 that gave guidance in the Brown ruling. As a result of the 1954 ruling, and the civil rights movement, the basic citizenship rights of blacks (e.g., public accommodations, housing, employment, and the right to vote) were reinstated for the first time since Reconstruction.
- Blaustein, Albert P. and Robert L. Zangrando, eds. 1991. Civil Rights and African Americans: A Documentary History. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Franklin, John Hope. 2006. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African America. New York: Knopf.
- Irons, Peter. 2006. A People ‘s History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution. Rev ed. New York: Penguin.
- Katz, William Loren, ed. 1968. The Suppressed Book about Slavery! New York: Arno Press and New York Times.
- Mandle, Jay R. 1978. The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy after the Civil War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Thomas, Brook, ed. 1997. Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
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The moment the first slave was brought to America a ball was set in motion that one day somewhere and somehow a distinction between races had to be dealt with. The Civil War helped to make a stand against enslavement. A few years later in Plessy v. Ferguson another step was taken to give blacks equal but separate treatment and access to public facilities. After taking a giant leap into the future, fifty-eight years, we have another landmark case. In Brown v. Board of Education, the separate but equal law was revised to bring the races together in the same public facilities with access to the same public resources.
The decision of Brown released congress from the restraints that they had been under with the previous decisions made by the Supreme Court. Congress was now able to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race. Quotas were instituted to minimize the discrimination that had been taking place. With quotas comes reverse discrimination. In Bakke v. Regents of the University of California came the dismissal of quotas in schools. Bakke challenged the University for letting black students into school with lower qualifications. Quotas are an unfortunate necessity to help incorporate blacks into the mainstream workforce.
The decisions in Plessy and Brown are similar because of how the decisions affect the group instead of the individuals. The Court is continually ruling in regard to race instead of the individual. If the Constitution is truly color blind, then we would not have these distinctions between classes when the rulings are made. Each ruling by the Court should be done on an individual basis and by the merits of that particular individual instead of the color of ones skin. The only reason the court rules in favor of Brown is because the implications go beyond just the individual affected, the ruling will affect the entire black race. The effects of the Brown case go a lot further than the immediate case.
During the sixties the civil rights movement encouraged the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act was already in the works due to the decision in Brown. Brown released the flood gates which held back blacks from equal opportunities. Before this decision blacks were in a psychological caste system. Even though they had the “same opportunities” as whites the mere fact that they were forced into separate quarters only thirty years after the release of their enslavement made them feel as if they were in a lower class. A lot of people say that if the blacks feel that way, then that is their own fault. The same people forget that the Constitution is color blind and would not understand why we have to have separate quarters in the first place.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, case after case was brought before different courts throughout the land to test the limits of the law. In 1972, Moose Lodge No.107 v. Irvis was brought before the Supreme Court. Irvis felt that he should be allowed to join a private club because the liquor licence was in limited supply in the city based on per capita, and the licence is supplied by the state. The government can not sanction racism and, according to Irvis, would be doing so by issuing a liquor licence to Moose Lodge No. 107. The right of a private club to choose its own members is one of the main reasons behind having a private club to begin with. To allow the government to invade the private sectors through an insignificant means was denied and the Supreme Court put their foot down and set some boundaries for civil rights activists.
Again in 1984 in Palmore v. Sidoti, we have a case where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will attempt to set some boundaries with bi-racial relationships and the placement of kids affected in the process. The welfare of the child has always been the courts number one priority when kids are involved. When Linda Sidoti moved in with a Negro, Anthony Sidoti sought custody of their child based on the child’s best interest. The question that was brought before the Supreme Court was if the child living with a Negro might inflict private biases from the child’s peers. This is one of the few cases that the child’s best interest is not what the Court was considering. According to the Fourteenth Amendment, government is to do away with classifying people according to their race. If we classify someone according to their race it will do more harm in the long and short run than the private biases the child in question will inflict.
Both of these cases have followed suit to Plessy and Brown in the fact that even though it seems that the rulings are having a direct effect on the people involved in the case, each case is addressing an entire group of people and establishes standards and boundaries.
In Bakke v Regents of the University of California, we have a landmark reverse discrimination case that influenced education as a whole. Bakke was rejected from graduate school even though he had superior scores than many of the African-American applicants who were admitted. Bakke challenged the University of California and overturned the quota system that had been established in public universities across the nation. The University of California held on to the belief that black people should have access to black doctors. However, if the University were to go on a sole merit system then the number of special admittees would diminish along with the aforementioned belief. This belief was quickly altered by the Supreme Court with their decision against the University.
The Court’s understand group rights and they address the individual rights through these group rights. Unfortunately the Supreme Court feels a necessity to answer individual questions by addressing entire groups. Everybody has needs and wants however, it is almost impossible to take each individual and create different criteria for them because the situation is a little different then situations that preceded it. Brown was addressed to a group to answer questions to a whole nation. Each case is the same in that every outcome has addressed an audience that fits the general mold that has been created in that particular case. The opinion of the Supreme Court has established an outline that serves as a guideline for lower courts. The opinion is recognized as the law of the land. That is the reason that the opinion of the Court must be directed towards a group when deciding a case. The case will be referred upon as actual law and must fit a broad group of people.
When Brown was decided Pandora’s Box was opened. Many trials have taken place that would not have if that case had been decided differently. With Plessy the opinion of the Court was very clear, you could almost say it was black and white. After Brown was decided, many questions were yet to be answered. Many random questions about the limits of the opinion were going to be exasperated. With every decision by the Supreme Court, Pandora’s box begins to close a little more each time.
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