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Shelby Rockwell

History 1102

SP 2019

April 25, 2019

Plessy v. Ferguson and the Perpetuation of Racism in the United States

Reconstruction in the South ended in the 1870's but the continuation of legal racism and

violence in the South was upheld by Jim Crow laws. These laws were enabled by the decision of

Plessy v. Ferguson in May 1896. It gave constitutional sanction to laws that were designed to

recreate the pre-Civil War Southern atmosphere of a subservient and unequal race in the South.

Plessy v. Ferguson perpetuated the idea of “separate but equal” facilities and services for people

of color (Duignan). Although passed in 1896, a full thirty-one years after the end of the Civil

War (1861-1865), Plessy v. Ferguson reinforced the idea of African Americans as second-class

citizens and helped continue legal violence against African Americans well into the 1960's and

beyond.

After occupying troops were removed from the South in 1877, signaling the end of the

era of Reconstruction, Southern states were quick to enact laws prohibiting marriage between

African Americans and whites. States also passed Jim Crow laws segregating blacks and whites

in public places including restrooms, train cars, theaters, and public schools. Many of these laws

were not repealed until the mid-1950's. Cementing these laws in place was the passing of Plessy
v. Ferguson (1896) which upheld a Louisiana law requiring separate but equal train cars for

black and white passengers.

In 1892, then 30-year-old Homer Plessy was incarcerated for sitting in the white car of

the East Louisiana Railroad. Although Plessy could pass quite easily for white, under Louisiana

law Plessy was considered black even though he was 7/8th white (Duignan). When Louisiana

passed the Separate Car Act in 1892, a civil rights group decided to challenge the law. Plessy

deliberately sat in the “Whites Only” car and identified himself as colored (Wormser). Lawyers

on behalf of Plessy argued that the Separate Car Act violated the thirteenth and fourteenth

amendments to the Constitution. Once this case reached the Supreme Court in a seven to one

decision, it was decided that separate facilities for blacks were indeed constitutional if they were

“equal”. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court rejected Plessy's argument that the Separate

Car Act violated the thirteenth amendment because it did not “reestablish slavery or constitute a

“badge” of slavery or servitude” (Duignan). The majority opinion, presented by Associate Justice

Henry Billings Brown, also argued that the Separate Car Act did not violate the terms of the

fourteenth amendment because that amendment was only meant to protect the legal equality of

African Americans, not the social equality. Therefore, the cars were considered “equal” because

there was no violation of the 14th amendment. This doctrine of “separate but equal” was fictional

because the facilities for blacks were almost always inferior and sometimes downright decrepit

in comparison to the white only facilities.

Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation in the United States and remained largely

unchallenged until the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. The Supreme

Court concluded that “racially segregated schools” are “inherently unequal” (Conflicts).
Furthermore, the Court informed the public that minority students excelled and did dramatically

better in classrooms that were of mixed race. Unfortunately, Southern states were slow to

implement the changes and ten years after the passing of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

very few black students were integrated into previously white only schools. There were angry

teachers and parents along with racially motivated riots. In some places, such as Prince Edward,

Virginia, the county officials closed all public schools to avoid integration. Other schools

required even more government intervention such as Little Rock's Central High.

They became known as the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students who

enrolled at Central High School in the summer of 1957 with the intention of becoming the first

African American students to attend and graduate from Little Rock's Central High School, a

previously all white school. They were warned not to go to school on the first day by the school

board, prevented to attend on the second day by a large white mob along with “about 270

soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard, sent by Arkansas Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus” (Jaynes).

Faubus opposed integration and defied a federal court order that required desegregation in all

schools.

The Little Rock Nine stayed home from school until September 23, 1957 while President

Dwight D. Eisenhower remained in talks with Little Rock's mayor, Woodrow Mann. On

September 25, 1957 the students were ushered into school by a group of U.S. Soldiers, members

of the “elite 101st Airborne Division, called the 'Screaming Eagles'” (Jaynes). In the end, only

one of the Little Rock Nine managed to graduate from Central High at the end of the school year

and the following year all Little Rock's public schools were closed by Gov. Faubus in order to

avoid complying with the federal order to desegregate. Central High did not reopen as a
desegregated school until 1960 and efforts to integrate schools in the area continued well through

into the 1960's.

Though all the Jim Crow laws of the deep South have been stricken off the books, racism

snakes through our society even today. Plessy gave the United States the convoluted idea of

“separate but equal” and Brown gave the country integration that it so desperately needed while

the Little Rock Nine taught the country to persevere. The story of race continues many years

after the cases of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education were heard by the

Supreme Court of their day. These cases were just the beginning of the legal history of race in

the United States.


Bibliography

Author Unknown. Separate But Equal? The Road to Brown. Exploring Constitutional Conflicts.

Retrieved April 27, 2019, from http://law2.umkc.edu/facuty/prjects/ftrials/conlaw/

sepbutequal.htm

Duignan, Brian (2017). Plessy v. Ferguson: Court Case 1896. Britannica Online. Retrieved April

25, 2019, from Britannica.com/event/Plessy-v-Ferguson-1896

Jaynes, Gerald D. (2015). Little Rock Nine: American Activists. Britannica Online. Retrieved

April 29, 2019, from Britannica.com/topic/Little-Rock.Nine

Wormser, Richard (2002). Plessy v. Ferguson(1896). Thirteen.org. Retrieved April 26, 2019,

from thirteen.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_plessy.html