SYMHC Classics: Plessy v FergusonStuff You Missed in History Class
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- 20 Mar 2021
This 2015 episode covers a landmark legal moment. The ruling in this infamous U.S. Supreme Court case stated that segregation was legal as long as the separate facilities were equal.
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This episode is brought to you by Comcast. Since twenty eleven, Comcast has connected more than four million students from low income families to the Internet. Now they're launching more than one thousand Wi-Fi connected lift zones and community centers nationwide to provide safe spaces to get online. Learn more at Comcast dotcom slash education. Happy Saturday, one of our episodes coming up this week includes a brief mention of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation as long as the segregated facilities are equal.
We're bringing our episode on Plessy vs. Ferguson out of the archive to give a little bit more context to that. And when this episode originally came out, we followed up with two episodes on Brown v. Board, which overturned this ruling. We mentioned that those are coming at the top of the episode. But since we have other classics lined up over the next few weeks just to be aware, we're not going to be replaying those this time around. So don't don't wait for those to show up in your feed, but they still are in the archive if folks are interested.
This originally came out February 16th, 2015.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio.
Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy Wilson and I'm Holly Frailing. We are going to spend a few episodes over the next few weeks talking about the two Supreme Court cases that sort of, in a way, bookended segregation in the United States. In Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal as long as the separate facilities were equal. And then many years later, Brown vs. Board of Education overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson and found that school segregation was unconstitutional.
That decision was such a big deal and was so monumental and led to such a huge backlash that we're actually going to split that part of the conversation into two episodes later down the road. So those two facts about Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown versus Board are things that most people who have studied the civil rights movement or United States history in any way are pretty familiar with. But I think for me and for you both, both of us and probably a lot of other people, the names of the cases and what they did is the beginning and the end of the conversation.
Like I had no idea what the story was behind how these cases came to be or any of that until I really got into researching them for these episodes. So that's why we were going to spend some time on this to talk about who the people were involved in Plessy versus Ferguson and Brown versus Board and sort of the journey that these cases took to come to the Supreme Court in the first place. So the context that we're going to start with today is actually the US civil war.
There are people who will argue that the civil war was not fought over slavery, that it was about states rights or economics. And while states rights and economics were certainly involved, the primary rights in question were the right to own slaves and the right to travel freely with slaves into states where slavery was illegal. The primary economic factor at issue was that the southern economy really relied on slavery in labor intensive industries such as cotton farming. You could also make the argument that the civil war was fought over over neither of those two things, that it was fought because the North wanted to preserve the Union of the States, but the South wanted to secede from that union.
And while strictly speaking, this is also true, the big factor that was driving states to seek to secede, which was specifically cited in the declaration of causes that were issued by Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas was slavery.
And this is all relevant because after the union won the war in 1865, slavery was abolished in the places where it was still legal and the federal government tried to rebuild the southern infrastructure and encourage racial equality in a period that became known as the reconstruction. Three amendments were added to the United States Constitution as part of this effort, the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to anyone who was born in the United States or nationalized, which included former slaves.
And the 15th Amendment read in part, The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. There was a lot more going on during reconstruction. All of the twists and turns could easily be their own whole series of episodes. But to make an extremely long story short, the South overall resented the largely northern pressure to free slaves and give them the right to vote.
This was especially true as black officials were elected to office in the South and for a brief period of time, some progress was made towards racial equality.
As the southern states were readmitted to the union and the federal government had less influence on how those states were run, the states started passing laws that restricted African-Americans right to vote by basically taking advantage of the fact that most of them had been slaves. And during their time as slaves, they had not been allowed to learn to read or write or to earn money or to hold property. So new laws required that in order to vote, people had to pass a literacy test or pay a poll tax or own property, something that in general, white people in the South could do much more easily than black people could.
Some of these tests were also virtually unpassable, but were only required for black voters with their right to vote restricted.
Black Americans lost many of their prior gains in terms of representation in the government. Afterwards, states, both Southern states and border states enacted segregation laws that became known as Jim Crow laws which separated black and white citizens in everything from hospitals to water fountains. Just the name Jim Crow was an insult. It came from a heavily stereotypical character in minstrel shows. These laws were enforced not just through the usual means of making arrests and bringing people to trial, but also through a social structure that insisted that black people be subservient to white people.
The laws were also enforced more directly through intimidation and violence, up to and including murder. White supremacy organizations like the Ku Klux Klan really flourished, and violence against black citizens at the hand of white citizens became both commonplace and rarely prosecuted.
Before we get into talking about a Jim Crow law and how it led to a Supreme Court ruling that legalized segregation. Do you want to have a word from a sponsor? Sure. Stupendous.
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So to return to the story of Plessy vs. Ferguson, one example of these Jim Crow laws was Louisiana's separate car law. And this law was to, quote, promote the comfort of passengers on their trains by providing, quote, equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races. So anyone who boarded a car in Louisiana that was not meant for their race could be fined or jailed. Interracial couples were not exempt from the law, nor were black maids and servants who were traveling with white employers.
Really, the only exception was nurses who were taking care of children of another race. This was signed into law on July 10th, 1890. Thanks to its sizeable black population, including slaves, free slaves and Creoles of color, and to the union's presence in New Orleans during much of the civil war, New Orleans has become home to a large population of affluent, politically active black citizens when the separate car law was passed. Activists in New Orleans set to work immediately, trying to put together a plan to challenge it.
On September 1st, 1891, 18 prominent black and Creole New Orleans citizens formed the Citizen's Committee to test the constitutionality of the separate car law or the committee. Take this citoyen. They got legal help from a white lawyer named Albian WTG He was from New York and had been an abolitionist. Torcy waived his fees and he promised to argue the case before the Supreme Court should it make it all the way there, since Torcy was both very busy and also very far away from Louisiana.
They also had the help of a local lawyer named James C. Walker.
The committee settled on a strategy of civil disobedience. They would find someone to break the separate car law and get arrested, and then they would take the case through the court system. This, they hoped, would lead to overturning segregation not just on Louisiana trains, but in all of the United States.
Then they started looking for volunteers who the law would consider to be colored, but who looked white, legal distinctions about who was considered to be part of which race really varied from state to state and through the years. And as a general rule, particularly in the south, the law required smaller and smaller amounts of African-American ancestry to be considered colored. And eventually this came down to the one drop rule, meaning that in a lot of places, if a person had one drop of African blood, that person was considered to be black.
Candidates had to be law abiding citizens with good reputations, people who would not be dismissed as disreputable and who had nothing in their background, that could be that could become an easy excuse for not taking their case seriously.
Their first attempts to break the separate car law was made by a man named Daniel Dune's, and he was a musician. He was also the son of one of the members of the committee, and he was one eighth black. He boarded the first class car of a train on February 24th, 1892, and then he told the conductor that he was colored. He was removed from the train and arrested. But before the case could go to trial, the charges against him were dismissed because the state Supreme Court ruled in a different case that state segregation laws couldn't apply to interstate travel.
They didn't. Tickets had been to Mobile, Alabama. So per the Louisiana Supreme Court, that ride was regulated by federal law and not state law. The committee had actually chosen an interstate ticket on purpose because they were hoping to draw on interstate commerce commerce clause. In the case, the committee tried again.
And this time the man breaking the law was Homer Plessy, a 30 year old shoemaker. He was also one eighth African-American. One of his great grandmothers had been black and he had skin light enough that he would not be questioned. Boarding the car. He bought his first class ticket to Covington, Louisiana, on the East Louisiana Railroad so that the whole trip would take place within the borders of the state. Nobody raised any questions when Plessy boarded the first class car.
And different accounts vary in exactly how the conductor came to know that he was legally a colored man and in the wrong place in some of the versions Plessy just told him and and others, the conductor asked because he knew that the committee was sending someone to test the segregation law that day. And in others, the conductor asked everyone in the car because it was part of his job to confirm the race of all passengers and everyone was in the correct car on the train regardless of how it played out.
And this information came to light. The train's conductor, JJ Dowling, asked Homer Plessy to leave the train after learning his race. And even though the law designated separate but equal cars, there was not actually a car for black passengers on the train that day, Plessy refused. He was arrested by a private detective hired by the committee and jailed members of the citizen's committee pooled their money to bail Plessy out.
Plus, his trial was set for October 13th of 1892. James Walker, who we mentioned earlier, argued that his arrest violated the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Previous court rulings had expanded on the interpretation of the 13th Amendment, not just to include a literal slavery, but also, quote, badges of slavery and servitude, which is how an amendment that was set up to abolish slavery was being applied to the matter of being segregated on a train.
But Lionel Adams, the attorney for the prosecution, argued that the separate car act reduced racial tension and so it was actually good for the state. He also argued that because the separate cars were equal, it was not discriminatory to separate people into them by their race. Although we're not clear on how that applied, given that there was reportedly no actual car for black passengers on that particular train.
Judge John Ferguson ruled in favor of the prosecution on November the 18th, and the next step in the case was the appeal. But again, we're going to pause for a second for a word from a sponsor before we dig into all of that juicy material.
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So let's let's get back to the story, which at this point is going to go to the Supreme Court, plus this case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court first, which heard it on November the 22nd of that year. The arguments were essentially the same as what had been argued in the court before and in what came as a surprise to no one. The court ruled that the law was not discriminatory because it applied equally to everyone.
It would actually be four years before the case would get to the U.S. Supreme Court. And as he had promised when originally agreeing to work with the Citizens Committee, Albi entourage's plan to argue the case before the Supreme Court. Rather than appealing immediately. He actually decided to take some time to try to raise funds for the case and work out his strategy. In addition to that, he and the committee were also hoping that by delaying a little bit, they would find themselves before a court that would see their case more favorably based on decisions that the court had already issued.
Justices in 1892 were really not very likely to find that the separate car law was unconstitutional. The precedent was just not running in favor of this case. So the committee crossed their fingers that some of the justices would be replaced before they submitted their own case.
And in 1895, two Supreme Court justices died and new appointees took their place. However, this did not look much better for Plessy in the citizens committee than the previous court had. One of the new justices was a former Confederate soldier, and the other had a reputation for being quite conservative. The new court also set an immediate precedent of upholding other Jim Crow laws. Plus, in just those couple of years, the overall racial climate in the United States had gotten worse instead of better.
So in spite of the fact that things seem to be kind of running against them today, submitted the case, which he prepared along with Walker and Samuel Phillips, and he submitted it for review. Toward the end of 1895, the Supreme Court heard the case, which was now known as Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. In the written briefs and oral arguments, Terzian team argued that the separate car law was unconstitutional in several ways, including the following. And this is very much an abridged list.
But first up, it violated the Fourteenth Amendment from several different angles by giving white citizens and colored citizens different rights and protections under the law.
Second, while proponents of the law claimed it was for the comfort of both black and white passengers, Tahj argued that it was really for the comfort of white passengers at the expense of black passengers and therefore discriminatory. Second, while proponents of the law claim that it was for the comfort of both black and white passengers, Torchy argued that it was really for the comfort of white passengers at the expense of black passengers and therefore discriminatory. He also argued that the law violated the 14th Amendment's due process clause by giving train conductors the power of law enforcement while giving train passengers no legal recourse about decisions the conductors made.
And last that it created conditions of subjection and inferiority, which previous court decisions had interpreted to be in violation of the 13th Amendment. Representing Louisiana side was Alexander Peter Morris, whose legal specialty was federal appeals. He argued that the separate car law was designed to prevent problems and serve the common good. So rather than making African-American passengers second class citizens, according to him, it actually protected them from harassment and discrimination by white passengers. He also noted several prior cases in which the Supreme Court had upheld states' rights in the matter of segregation.
And he said that the right that issue in the separate car law were not civil rights at all. They were social rights, which are not constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court announced its decision on May 18th of 1896, Justice David J. Breuer excused himself for participating because his daughter had just died and the remaining eight judges upheld the constitutionality of the separate car law in a seven to one ruling. Henry Billing's Brown wrote the majority opinion, which dismissed the idea that the separate car law violated the 13th Amendment entirely.
He also cited several cases in which the court had upheld states rights to segregate, and he dismissed the idea that providing separate facilities was inherently discriminatory. This is a thing he wrote on that point. We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.
So it goes on to say that if, quote, the colored race became the majority in the state legislature and enacted the same law, that white people would not think themselves inferior because of it. This was the point where I had to stop reading Supreme Court rulings and take a little break. That's probably for the best in terms of your mental stability. There's a lot that's really offensive in in the whole majority opinion and and the part where it's like this, you guys are making a big deal out of it.
This is on you, not on us. That was the part that made me like a yes. Feel like they haven't changed very much because this feels like the stop playing the race card of the late 19th century. Yeah. So the sole dissenter in all of this was John Marshall Harlan, who went against the majority with so much vigor that he became known as the great dissenter. His dissent accurately predicted what was going to happen next, which was that states were going to use this ruling as a justification to enact a whole lot more segregation laws and to be more blatantly discriminatory, feeling like they had the backing of the Supreme Court in doing so.
One of his statements goes like this quote, In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will in time prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case. So if you're not familiar with that one, that's Dred Scott versus Sanford. When Dred Scott, who was a slave, sued for his freedom and the court decided that anyone with African ancestry, whether they were a slave or free, was not intended to be a citizen of the United States and therefore was not entitled to bring such a suit in federal court.
The court also ruled that the federal government couldn't prohibit slavery in territory that it had acquired after the United States was founded. Harlan's dissent also argued strenuously against the idea that segregation was good for race relations, to quote. Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.
What can most certainly arouse race hate? What more certainly create. And perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, then state enactments, which in fact proceed on the ground, that colored citizens are so far inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens. That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana. Yeah, his whole tone is basically it's completely obvious to everyone that the intent here is to subjugate an entire race of people and upholding this law is going to make it so much worse.
Today, Plessy versus Ferguson is a pretty infamous and notorious Supreme Court case, but at the time it really did not make a lot of big news. The reaction of a lot of the media and of the majority as a whole was sort of well, obviously afterward, though, states really did begin passing more and more segregation laws. And in spite of the ruling being based on the idea that things were separate but equal, a lot of these separate facilities were not equal at all.
They were often massively and deliberately inferior that from the facilities for white people. And a lot of people interpreted this ruling to mean that all discrimination in everything was legal, not just the separation of races into two separate but supposedly equal facilities. And while most of these laws were passed in the South, this was not exclusively a southern phenomenon. 20 percent of the segregation laws in the United States were in the North, Midwest and the West. And it also was not just about segregating African-Americans in states with sizable populations of Asians, Mexicans and Native Americans, for example, these populations were segregated from the white population as well.
Since the Supreme Court had upheld the previous verdict, Homer Plessy then appeared before Judge Ferguson in Louisiana one more time on January 11th, 1897. This was to plead guilty and to pay his fine for violating the separate car law. He spent the rest of his life working as a laborer and then a clerk, and then eventually he became an insurance salesman for an African-American owned insurance company. Homer Plessy died on March 1st of 1925.
It would be almost 60 years before this decision was overturned.
And we are going to talk about that in another episode. And then at another episode after that, we're going to talk about what happened after it was overturned. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode is out of the archive, if you heard an email address or a Facebook URL or something similar over the course of the show, that could be obsolete. Now, our current email address is History podcast at I, heart radio dot com, our old HowStuffWorks.
The email address no longer works and you can find us all over social media at MTT in history. And you can subscribe to our show on Apple podcast, Google podcast, the I Heart Radio app, and wherever else you listen to podcasts.
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