The Center for Grassroots Oversight

This page can be viewed at http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a1896usscplessy


Context of '1896: ’Plessy v. Ferguson’ Case Establishes ‘Separate but Equal’ Doctrine in US Law'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event 1896: ’Plessy v. Ferguson’ Case Establishes ‘Separate but Equal’ Doctrine in US Law. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

The US Supreme Court rules in Dred Scott v. Sandford that African-Americans are not citizens regardless of their status as free or slave, and therefore cannot sue for redress in federal courts. The Court also rules that Congress has no power to ban slavery in US territories, and that the rights of slaveowners are protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves are categorized as property. The origins of the case date to 1833 when Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and moved him to a military base in Wisconsin. Slavery was banned in territories made free by the Missouri Compromise, and Wisconsin was one of these territories. However, Scott did not assert his freedom at that time. Instead, he lived in Wisconsin for four years, sometimes hiring himself out for work. In 1840, Scott moved with his family to Louisiana and then to St. Louis, Missouri, with Emerson. After Emerson died, Scott attempted to buy his family’s freedom from Emerson’s wife Eliza Irene Sanford, but was refused. (Sanford’s name was misspelled ‘Sandford’ in court documents.) Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he and his family were free because they lived in a territory where slavery was illegal, and that he was owed back wages. A state court found in Scott’s favor in 1850, but Sanford’s brother John appealed the decision. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the original decision. Scott, alleging physical abuse, then sued John Sanford for damages in a federal court, but a jury disallowed Scott’s right to file a case in federal court. Scott appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction to take the case because Scott is not a US citizen. Taney writes that Scott is “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves,” and, therefore, he is not a “member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution.” Taney also dismisses Scott’s assertion that his residence in a free state automatically grants him freedom and status as a US citizen, reasoning that states may choose to recognize the rights of freed slaves as citizens, but the federal government is under no obligation to do so. Lastly, the Court finds that, because slaves are property, Congress’s ban on slavery in the territories violates the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights. Justice Benjamin Curtis issues a powerful dissent to the Taney opinion. The Court’s decision will exacerbate tensions between Northern and Southern states, being widely seen as validating the South’s view of national power. It will also embolden pro-slavery Southerners and others to try to extend slavery into other areas of the nation, and will infuriate abolitionists, who will become powerful voices within the newly formed Republican Party. The three “Reconstruction Amendments”—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth (see February 26, 1869)—will render the Scott decision invalid. In modern times, all people born or naturalized in the US will be considered citizens who have the right to bring suit in federal court. (McBride 12/2006)

The Fourteenth Amendment, one of the so-called “Reconstruction Amendments,” is ratified. This amendment makes all persons born or naturalized in the US citizens. It also overturns the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which denied African-Americans, slave or free, the right to citizenship (see March 6, 1857). The amendment also places restrictions on state laws: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It grants the US Congress the power to enforce, through legislation, the provisions of the amendment. Beginning in the 1920s, the Supreme Court will begin applying the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the provisions of the Bill of Rights in states as well as in matters concerning the federal government. (PBS 12/2006)

The US Supreme Court uses the “Slaughterhouse Cases” to narrowly interpret the Fourteenth Amendment (see July 9, 1868). The combined cases have nothing to do with the rights of freed African-Americans, but center on disputes brought to court by white businessmen. The Court rules 5-4 that distinctions exist between federal and state citizenship rights, and that states have no obligation to provide their citizens with the same “privileges and immunities” they enjoy as national citizens. (PBS 12/2006)

The US Supreme Court strikes down the provision of an 1875 civil rights law that prohibited racial discrimination by owners of hotels, theaters, and other forms of public accommodation. The Court consolidates a number of cases from four states into the “Civil Rights Cases,” and rules that the Fourteenth Amendment (see July 9, 1868) does not give the federal government the power to ban private discrimination. Further, the court rules that the denial of public accommodation does not constitute a “badge of slavery” and is therefore not prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in the US. (PBS 12/2006; U.S. Supreme Court 2012)

Justice Henry Brown.Justice Henry Brown. [Source: Wikimedia]The US Supreme Court rules 7-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law requiring “equal but separate accomodations for the white and colored races” is constitutional. Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man who sometimes “passed” as white, took part in a plan by a small number of black professionals seeking to have a court overturn the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890. Plessy boarded a whites-only railroad car and was arrested, as per arrangement, by a private detective. The group intended to use Plessy’s light skin tone to demonstrate how arbitrary and unconstitutional the law was. Plessy’s lawyers argued that Louisiana’s segregation law violated both the Thirteenth Amendment, which bars slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law (see July 9, 1868). Louisiana courts consistently found against Plessy, and the case moved all the way to the Supreme Court. Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Henry Brown rules that the law does not “discriminate” among legal rights by race, but merely recognizes a “distinction” between races “which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color.” He adds: “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences 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 on the same plane.” The ruling establishes the “separate but equal” doctrine that informs many states’ decision to segregate public facilities—schools, railcars, even drinking fountains. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner and a pro-slavery politician, writes a fiery dissent that refutes Brown’s assertion that the Louisiana law discriminates equally among whites and blacks. Harlan writes, “Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons.” He disagrees with the majority opinion’s finding that segregation on railcars does not violate African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. But Harlan does not advocate social equality among the races. Instead, he argues that legally imposed segregation denies political equality. Harlan writes: “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” Harlan’s dissent becomes the underpinning of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (see May 17, 1954). (Konkoly 12/2006; PBS 12/2006)

One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress 1994; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1957, the first such law to pass Congress since the federal civil rights laws of 1875. The law allows the US attorney general to bring suits to address discrimination and voter intimidation against African-Americans and other minorities. The CRA is the jumping-off point of successive legislative attempts to grant equal rights and protections for minority citizens. President Eisenhower was never a vocal supporter of civil rights, believing that such changes had to come from within the “heart” and not be imposed by legislation from Washington. However, he does support the CRA, and helped push it through Congress against entrenched resistance, largely but not entirely from Southern Democrats determined to protect segregationist practices even after the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954). The CRA originally created a new division within the Justice Department to monitor civil rights abuses, but Senate Democrats, led by Lyndon Johnson (D-TX), worked to water down the bill in order to keep Southern Democrats and more liberal Democrats from the west and northeast from tearing the party apart along ideological lines. Johnson, along with Senator James O. Eastland (D-MS), rewrote the CRA to take much of its power away. The final version does grant new protections for African-American voters, pleasing the liberals of the Democratic Party, but contains almost no enforcement procedures for those found obstructing African-Americans’ attempts to vote, thus mollifying the conservative wing of the party. Eisenhower himself admitted that he did not understand parts of the bill. African-American leader Ralph Bunche, a prominent US diplomat, calls the act a sham and says he would rather have no bill than the CRA. But Bayard Rustin, a leader of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), says the bill has symbolic value as the first piece of civil rights legislation passed in 82 years. (History Learning Site 2012; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, finds Virginia’s law upholding “poll taxes” to be unconstitutional. The 7-2 decision finds that poll taxes—fees demanded of voters, which have been used for over a century to disenfranchise minority voters (see February 4, 1964 and December 6, 1937)—violate the Constitution by imposing discriminatory restrictions on voting. Justice William O. Douglas writes the majority opinion, with Justice Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II dissenting. Douglas cites the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954) and the recently passed Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965) in his ruling. (Legal Information Institute 2011)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) tells a reporter that the Supreme Court issued its 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) in part because none of its members have ever been elected officials and thusly they have no personal experience with the corruption that comes with unregulated money being allowed into political campaigns. The Court’s majority opinion found that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Whitehouse says in part: “Unfortunately you had the five right-wing judges, none of whom have ever run for any office ever and have zero political experience between the five of them, offering opinions about what money can do in elections.… So clearly the finding of fact in Citizens United that unlimited corporate spending cannot either increase the risk of corruption or increase the appearance to the public that there’s corruption is ludicrous.… The president asked me who I thought, you know, what were the characteristics of somebody that should be appointed to the Court, and I said I think it should be somebody who has some actual political experience out there so that they are not operating in this political arena with absolutely no knowledge. Even if they wanted to come to the result that Citizens United came to, I think those judges would have had a hard time getting there if they’d had actual practical political experience because they would have known what a preposterous finding they were making.” Legal scholar Ian Millhiser of the liberal news Web site Think Progress writes: “The current Supreme Court includes eight former US Court of Appeals judges and one former law school dean. Four of the five current justices responsible for Citizens United served as political appointees in Republican administrations. The justices who decided Brown v. Board of Education (see May 17, 1954), by contrast, included one former governor, three former US senators, and one former state lawmaker.” (Millhiser 5/23/2012)


Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike