Legal Case Brief


CAPTION / CITATION : Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

ISSUE: Was racial segregation consistent with the constitutional mandate under the

Equal Protection Clause?

FACTS: Plessy was a light skinned African American who attempted to ride in a New Orleans, Louisiana railroad car designated for whites only. He was arrested for his conduct and he sought redress in court for his rights.

COURT DECISION: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was consistent with the constitutional mandate of equal protection. Facilities could be separate provided they were substantially “equal.”

COURT RATIONALE: Plessy argued that his rights were violated under the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments of the constitution. The Court disagreed and decided that the two races can co-exist separately as a matter of law so long as the separation does not bring about unequal conditions. The Court ruled that the 13th Amendment was not violated because blacks were socially, not politically, inferior to whites which is not necessarily cognizable under the law. The Court argued that the 14th Amendment was not violated because the separation was enforced on both sides in that whites could not sit in the cars designated for blacks.

DISSENTING OPINION: In this case the dissenting opinion is very interesting not just in the manner in which it is written but by whom, a former slave owner and KKK member who, interestingly, made it all the way to the country’s highest court. The lone dissenting judge, Justice John Marshall Harlan, argued that there is no superior race or controlling race of people. People can coexist without separation.

PERSONAL OPINION: Separate but equal was half true – the races were indeed separated but the conditions that Blacks suffered through were far from equal to those of White Americans. Plessy was rightfully overturned by the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. Brown attempted to curtail that by helping to usher in the civil rights movement.

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