The petitioners challenged the Louisiana statute that provided for separate but equal railway carriages for the white and colored races.
Every exercise of the police power must be reasonable, and extend only to such laws as are enacted in good faith for the promotion of the public good, and not for annoyance or oppression of a particular class.
An 1890 Louisiana statute required railroad companies to provide separate but equal accommodations for whites and colored races. Plessy, a United States citizen who resided in Louisiana, had seven-eighths Caucasian and one-fifth African blood. In 1892, he bought a first-class ticket on the East Louisiana Railway and took a vacant seat in a couch designated for white passengers. Plessy was required by the conductor to move to a couch for non-white passengers. When he refused to move, Plessy was ejected from the coach, imprisoned, and charged with violating state law.
Does the Louisiana statute that provides for separate but equal railway carriages for the white and colored races violate the Constitution?
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.
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.
The law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyance is unreasonable, or more obnoxious to the fourteenth amendment than the acts of congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia, the constitutionality of which does not seem to have been questioned. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, as the petitioner argues, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals. 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. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same public.