This Day in History: 1896 ‘Plessy’ Ruling Legalizes Segregation in US

In 1892, Homer Plessy refused to sit in the black section of a passenger train – a violation of Louisiana law.

Four years later, Plessy was a plaintiff in a case — Plessy v. Ferguson — that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which on this day, May 18, in 1896, upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Rejecting Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights were violated, the high court ruled that a state law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between whites and blacks did not conflict with the 13th and 14th Amendments. 

Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, argued that forced segregation of the races stamped African Americans with a badge of inferiority. That same line of argument would become a decisive factor in another landmark case that laid the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“Separate but equal” remained in place in America until 1954, when the Supreme Court revisited the concept in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education, asserting the right of black children to attend all white public schools.

In a unanimous and historic decision, the justices found that “separate but equal has no place in the U.S. Constitution,” reasoning that it was a clear violation of the 14th amendment, which guaranteed equal protection for all citizens.

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