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Plessy v. Ferguson

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Brief Fact Summary.

The petitioners challenged the Louisiana statute that provided for separate but equal railway carriages for the white and colored races.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

While the Fourteenth Amendment seeks to ensure equality among different races, it does not seek to abolish distinctions based upon color.

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

Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

A person with one eighth African blood took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated, and was ordered by the conductor to vacate said coach and take a seat in another assigned to persons of colored race. Having refused to comply with such demand, he was forcibly ejected with the aid of a police officer and imprisoned in the jail to answer a charge of having violated the state statute.

Issue.

Does the Louisiana statute that provides for separate but equal railway carriages for the white and colored races violate the Constitution?

Held.

No, the Louisiana statute that provides for separate but equal railway carriages for the white and colored races does not violate the Constitution, because while the object of the Fourteenth Amendment was to enforce equality of the two races before the law, it was not intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.

Dissent.

Justice Harlan

If the statute of Louisiana is consistent with the personal liberty of citizens, why may not the State require the separation in railroad coaches of native and naturalized citizens of the United States or of Protestants and Roman Catholics? The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. However, in view of the Constitution, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. All citizens are equal before the law. States may not regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race. The two races are indissolubly linked together and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.

Discussion.

Laws permitting or requiring the two races – white and black – separation in places where they are liable to be brought 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 the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced. Therefore, the Louisiana statute that requires separate but equal accommodations to blacks and whites is constitutional.


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