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Plessy v. Ferguson

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Brief Fact Summary.

An 1890 Louisiana law required that railway passenger cars have “equal but separate accommodations” for blacks and whites. Plessy was arrested for refusing to vacate a seat in a “whites only” car of a Louisiana train.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Racial segregation is not unlawful discrimination, so long as accommodations are “separate but equal.”

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

The Constitution neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

An 1890 Louisiana law required that railway passenger cars have “equal but separate accommodations” for blacks and whites. Plessy, who was 7/8 white and 1/8 black, was arrested for refusing to vacate a seat in a “whites only” car of a Louisiana train. Plessy argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Issue.

Did the Louisiana law violate the Fourteenth Amendment?

Held.

No, the Louisiana law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

Dissent.

Justice Harlan

Our constitution is colorblind. All citizens should have equal access to civil rights. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches does not alter that fact. It is common knowledge that the Louisiana law’s original purpose is to exclude black people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons, rather than the other way around.

Discussion.

The Court upheld state-imposed racial segregation, stating that while the Fourteenth Amendment intended to establish absolute equality for the races before the law, separate treatment did not imply the inferiority of African Americans. The Court maintained that if enforced separation stamps blacks with a badge of inferiority, then it is not by virtue of anything found in the act but rather because blacks “choose to put that construction upon it.” The Court noted that there was no meaningful difference in quality of white versus black railway cars. As such, segregation was not unconstitutional discrimination.


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