Citation. 163 U.S. 537 (1896)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Plessy (D) tried to sit in a railroad car designated as being for the use of whites only, and was therefore arrested.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
It is reasonable to enforce segregation of colored and white races if based upon the tradition, custom and usage of the state.
Plessy(D) was a 7/8 white man with white skin. He tried to take a seat in an all-white railroad car and was refused. When he resisted eviction, he was arrested under the state law which provided that separate but equal railroad accommodation for the different races. He appealed his imprisonment on the grounds that this segregation was a form of discrimination against the black race, marking them as inferior. It violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery in the U.S. and prohibited the adoption of any statute by any state which should infringe upon the rights of U.S. citizens, respectively. The court declared him guilty on the grounds that the law provided for a reasonable exercise of police power by the state to promote a situation based upon the custom, usage and tradition of the people of that state.
Does the state have the right to segregate races in separate but equal facilities?
(Brown, J.) Yes. The state has the right to keep the races apart in separate but equal facilities under a valid exercise of its governmental authority to restrict the rights of private persons. Such restriction is valid if required to preserve order and public peace in the name of age-old tradition and custom. Such decisions have always been declared to be right. The act of segregation is not a mark of slavery, or of inferiority, despite the connotations attached to the custom by blacks, including Plessy (D). It violates no statute. The conviction of Plessy is sustained.
(Harlan, J.) The statute does not allow the individual to freely associate with others as is his constitutional right. The constitution takes no notice of skin color or race, and treats all citizens alike under law. Blacks are not inferior nor subject by race to whites. They are U.S. citizens and therefore entitled to enjoy all the privileges the constitution guarantees them. These privileges are denied by the act of segregation, which is therefore not permissible.The conviction should be reversed.
Plessy is only of historical importance today as it was effectively and expressly overruled by the later ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). In Brown, 58 years later, the Court ruled that separate could never be considered equal.