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Plessy v. Ferguson

Citation. 163 U.S. 537 (1896)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The State of Louisiana passed a law, which provided equal but separate accommodations for the white and other races and that no person shall occupy seats in couches, other than ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to. The petitioner with one-eight African blood took a seat that belonged to the white. He was ordered to vacate the couch and when he refused, he was ejected and imprisoned.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the absolute equality of different races before the law.


The State of Louisiana passed a law, providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races. The statute provided equal but separate accommodations for different races and that no person shall occupy seats in couches, other than ones assigned to them on account of the race they belong to. The petitioners included one-eight African blood but the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him. He took possession of a vacant seat in a couch that belonged to the white and when he was ordered to vacate the couch and take a seat in another, he refused. He was subsequently ejected by the police and imprisoned.


Does the statute that provides equal but separate accommodations of seats for different races in a train violate the Fourteenth Amendment?


No. While the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted to enforce the absolute equality of races before the law, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Therefore, the statute does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.


Justice Harlan

The Louisiana statute had its origin in the purpose, not so much as to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored persons from coaches occupied by white persons. Louisiana tried to accomplish, under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep themselves while traveling in a train. If a white man and a black man choose to occupy the same public conveyance on a public highway, it is their right to do so and no government can prevent it without infringing the personal liberty of each.


Laws, permitting or even requiring separation of different races in places where they may come into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in their exercise of their police power. Similarly, the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children has been considered a valid exercise of state legislative power by courts. The plaintiff’s argument consists of an assumption that the enforced separation of two races indicated inferiority of the colored race. If it be so, it is not because of the statute, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. The plaintiff’s argument also assumes that the colored race should become the dominant power in the state legislature, which contradicts the heart of the Equal Protection Clause.

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