Learning about America through primary sources: Plessy v. Ferguson

Written by Derek Monson

December 10, 2021

This is part 11 in the Sutherland series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

Plessy v. Ferguson was an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision saying that state racial segregation laws did not violate the Constitution under the 13th or 14th amendments. The plaintiff was a Louisianan named Homer Plessy who was 7/8 white and 1/8 black. He purchased a train ticket and sat in a vacant seat in a train car for whites only. He was asked to move to a black train car because of his race, refused, and was arrested under Louisiana’s law requiring “separate railway carriages for the white and colored races” for train travel solely within the state.

Plessy sued, his attorney arguing that the state law was unconstitutional under the 13th and 14th amendments. The court upheld Louisiana’s law, with the majority arguing that “we consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.”

Justice Marshall Harlan was the only justice to dissent in the case, arguing that “such legislation as that here in question is inconsistent not only with that equality of rights which pertains to citizenship, national and state, but with the personal liberty enjoyed by every one within the United States.” Harlan’s view would ultimately be vindicated by the Supreme Court with its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Where did it come from in our history?

At the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, the 13th and 14th amendments had been in effect for roughly three decades (since 1865 and 1868, respectively). Despite language in the 14th Amendment empowering Congress to use legislation to enforce the amendment, the Supreme Court in 1883 struck down the duly enacted federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which made it illegal to discriminate in places of public accommodation (hotels, restaurants, theaters, etc.) based on race.

The post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, when federal troops were stationed in Southern states to protect the civil rights of Black Americans, ended during the 1870s. After Reconstruction, states began enacting laws requiring racial segregation in public spaces. In short, a brief period of advancement for Southern Black Americans’ civil rights after the Civil War began giving way to the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. The Plessy decision underpinned this legal regime until it was overturned during the 1960s.

Why is Plessy v. Ferguson an important element of civics and history education?

The Plessy decision reminds us how the history of the American aspirations to freedom and equality often follows progress with regress, before progressing again. This cycle of freedom and equality, as it might be called, plays itself out in American history with many groups: racial minorities, religious groups, women and others.

The repetition of that cycle throughout U.S. history teaches us of the necessity of constant diligence and vigilance in ensuring that we and future generations understand, cultivate devotion to, and live America’s civic ideals and aspirational principles. They will not be applied perfectly – as is implicit in the phrase “to form a more perfect union” in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution – and there will likely be periods of backsliding.

But knowing those realities from American history, we can successfully apply those principles more perfectly to minimize or counteract the backsliding. In other words, understanding the civic mistakes and human harms caused by them in American history, such as Plessy v. Ferguson, will help us prevent some potential missteps and minimize the harm from the ones that we – as flawed human beings – will inevitably make in the future.

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