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Plessy V Ferguson and the 14th Amendment


One of the landmark US Supreme Court decisions upholding the validity of racial segregation was Plessy v Ferguson. It was an 1896 case whose ruling was based on separate but equal doctrine. Homer Plessy was a 7/8 Caucasian man who refused to sit in a train car meant for the blacks. The background of the case and the context stems from the enactment of equality laws such as the 14th Amendment, various aspects surrounding the conclusion of the reconstruction period, and the blacks’ resistance to segregation.

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14th Amendment

The law is divided into various sections which provide for the equality and the rights of US citizens. It gives grounds for citizenship and membership to the states of residency through birth and naturalization. The position nullified the earlier decision that denied blacks the right to citizenship, albeit being born free. The second clause protected the citizens from violating their rights by the state and the federal government by requiring them to make laws that do not infringe on citizens’ immunities and privileges. The third clause further expressed the protection of peoples’ rights to property, liberty, and life. The section also includes equal protection to stop the government from discriminating against African Americans (Voros).

The amendment also outlined more regulations in its second to fifth sections, which governed the state’s conduct against the citizens. Some of the provisions included the federal government’s authorization to penalize states that infringed on their citizens’ voting rights. They could be infringed due to a reduction in Congress representation. The law exempted state and federal governments from repaying the debts accrued by the previous confederate states. The final section gave Congress the ability to enforce the amendment’s provisions after enacting appropriate legislation. Due to the express provisions of the amendment of 1868, all the citizens and especially the people of color were assured of protection from the state and federal governments.

The Background of the Case

The Republican allies and southern Democrats reached an informal agreement in 1877, leading to removing federal troops from the South. As a result, Democrats gained tremendous control in the areas leading to the reconstruction era’s demise. The duration was quite turbulent after the American Civil War as plans and efforts were made to reintegrate freed slaves into the southern states. The law promised equality, especially to the blacks, through various provisions such as the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution. The 14th amendment provided extensive rights and freedoms to all the people and opposed discrimination based on race.

However, white supremacy was reestablished in the Southern states reverting to disempowerment and several disadvantages to the African Americans. For example, laws were passed by state legislatures to have railroads avail separate cars for the colored passengers instead of people mixing freely, as they did initially. As the Jim Crow period arose, the blacks mounted resistance to achieve freedom and equality. At the heart of the resistance, Plessy boarded a train headed to Louisiana and occupied a seat in a car meant for the whites. He refused to leave the seat when asked by the conductor; he was arrested, jailed, convicted for violating the law. He filed a petition to the Supreme Court claiming the law was contrary to the equality provision in the 14th Amendment.

The Supreme Court Ruling

The court ruled that the separate but equal doctrine was constitutional and that the 14th Amendment protection applied to civil and political rights such as voting and not social freedoms such as choosing one’s preferred railroad car. The court provided that the segregation that happened in the railroads was not inferior, as Plessy had tried to argue. Justice Henry Brown, in a concurring opinion, provided that Plessy’s argument was fallacious in the sense that the different cars did not place a stamp on the colored races marking them inferior. Instead, the inferiority was a result of their construction (“Plessy V. Ferguson (1896)”).

Justice John Marshall Harlan was alone in the minority ruling. His dissenting opinion stated that the separation of citizens could not be justified by any law and was contrary to the equality and civil freedom provided in the constitution, arguing that the separation on the public highway was a sign of servitude. Despite being an initial slaveholder who had refused the civil rights and emancipation for the freed slaves earlier on, he had a different stand because of the anger from the activities of supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

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The Significance of the Case

The case affirmed and validated the constitutionality of the separate but equal doctrine, which upheld segregation. As a result, the South continually experienced Jim Crow laws, which promoted disenfranchisement, especially to people of color. Other than railroads, other public amenities sanctioned by the verdict include swimming pools, buses, schools, theaters, and hotels. The situation persisted up to 1954 during the Brown v Board of Education case as the judges echoed the sentiments given by Justice Marshall.

Works Cited

“Plessy V. Ferguson (1896)”. LII / Legal Information Institute, 2020, Web.

Voros, F. “Understanding the 14th Amendment.” Utah Bar Journal 30.3 (2017): 10-15.

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