The Reconstruction Era ended with the Compromise of 1877, which allowed for Southern Democrats to regain control of the South. During the Reconstruction Era, white and Black people in the South mixed freely. However, in the 1880s, states began to implement segregation legislation. In Louisiana, state law made it mandatory for the railways to have separate but equal cars for white and “Colored” passengers. If a Black passenger was to violate this law, they could face fines and prison time.
Many African-American civil rights organizations wanted to overturn the segregation laws that plagued the South. Homer Plessy was a test case. The Committee of Citizens, a prominent African-American group, recruited Plessy. Plessy, a man who was seven eighths white, purchased a ticket for and sat in a train car reserved for "whites only" on the East Louisiana Railway. Plessy was chosen for this task since he did not appear to be a person of color. Given his complexion, he would have been allowed to sit in a “white car” had the conductor not been prompted. After being prompted by Plessy’s associate, the conductor ordered Plessy to move, and when he refused, Plessy was arrested. Plessy claimed that the Separate Car Act was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that all persons should have equal protection under the law. The Court was asked to either uphold or strike down the Louisiana Separate Car Act.
The Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana Separate Car Act by a 7-1 vote. The Court decided that separate but equal accommodations were not in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which established the Separate but Equal doctrine, and upheld state-imposed racial segregation. In Justice Brown’s majority opinion, he wrote that segregation itself was not discrimination, and the Fourteenth Amendment was a better fit to apply to political and civil rights, but not social rights.
Justice Brown was aware that the Separate Car Act was meant as an act of white supremacy, but decided to look at the law on its face and disregard its intent. Brown argued that there wasn’t a real difference between white and Black cars, overlooking the concept of racism entirely. Justice Brown first struck down the notion of using the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, by saying a distinction between the races must always exist. Then, Brown diminished the Fourteenth Amendment claims, arguing that the intent of the Amendment was not to abolish racial distinctions or enforce equality. Brown, a white man, argued that laws requiring the separation of races did not imply the inferiority of one race to another. Justice Brown also stated that Plessy lost no property due to the Louisiana Separate Car Act. Justice Brown even stated that if African-Americans see the law as a badge of inferiority, that is a construction they are choosing to place upon it.
Justice Harlan, who wrote the dissent in the case, was a former slaveholder, who only changed his opinions about race after witnessing the actions of the Klu Klux Klan. Justice Harlan called out Justice Brown’s performative ignorance, noting that everyone knows the statute was meant to discriminate against and exclude Black persons, not white persons. Harlan wrote that while white people see themselves as dominant, the Constitution views all citizens equally and deserving of rights. He also noted that while slavery had ended, sinister legislators still wanted to inhibit the rights of Blacks in America. Justice Harlan wrote that the Act should be struck down. He also made comments which are now controversial today, arguing that our Constitution is color-blind.
The decision in Plessy was a historical landmark. After the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), segregation laws continued and became more numerous. The Plessy decision gave white Americans the right away to continue Jim Crow laws, which spanned the next fifty years. Surprisingly, when Justice Harlan died, Justice Brown spoke at his funeral and denounced the Plessy majority opinion. In 1954, the doctrine of separate but equal was finally marked unconstitutional and Plessy was finally overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. However, Justice Harlan’s dissent is quoted to this day. In particular, his line about a color-blind constitution is quoted by many Americans who are against affirmative action policies, meant to expand African-Americans access to white-dominated spaces.