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Plessy versus Ferguson
The United States Supreme Court in 1896
The members of the United States Supreme Court, 1896–1897. Under Chief Justice Melville Fuller, this Court established the “Separate–But–Equal” doctrine in a 7 to 1 decision on Monday, May 18th, 1896. Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court. 1
Homer Adolph Plessy was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1862, when Union troops under General Benjamin Franklin Butler had freed Black Americans in New Orleans. At that time Black Americans could then marry whomever they chose, sit in any streetcar seat, and even attend integrated schools. However, as a thirty (30) year–old adult, Plessy found that those gains from the American Civil War (1862–1865) and the Radical Reconstruction of the South (1863–1877) were abolished after Union troops were withdrawn in the Republican Compromise of 1877. 2
- The Facts Of The Matter
According to the One-Drop Rule, any American with African ancestry (i.e., any person with even “one drop of black blood“) was considered a Black American. 3 So when Mr. Plessy, who was 1/8 Black American, 4 a Shoemaker, an insurance collector, a civil rights activist and a member of the Republican Party, 5 attempted to sit in an All–White railroad car, he was arrested for violating an 1890 Louisiana statute that provided for segregated “separate but equal” railroad accommodations. Black Americans using facilities not designated for their race were criminally liable under the statute. At trial with Justice John Howard Ferguson 6 presiding, Mr. Plessy was found guilty on the grounds that the law was a reasonable exercise of the state’s police powers based upon the social customs, usages, and the antebellum traditions in Louisiana.
- The Question Before The Court
Can the states constitutionally enact legislation requiring persons of different races to use “separate but equal” segregated facilities?
- The Answer And Decision From The Court
Yes. The states can constitutionally enact legislation requiring persons of different races to use “separate but equal” segregated facilities. Judgment for Ferguson (i.e., Plessy loses).
- A Note Looking Forward
This case was overruled fifty–eight (58) years later by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). 7
The Justices Of The United States Supreme Court in 1896
“The judges and lawyers, — simply as such, I mean, — and all men of expediency, try this case by a very low and incompetent standard. They consider, not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional. Is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? In important moral and vital questions like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. They persist in being the servants of the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity. The question is not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into an agreement to serve the devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God, in spite of your own past recreancy, or that of your ancestor, — by obeying that eternal and only just CONSTITUTION, which He, and not any Jefferson or Adams, has written in your being.” — Henry David Thoreau, from his 1854 essay entitled: “Slavery in Massachusetts” based on a speech he gave at an anti–slavery rally at Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854, after the re–enslavement in Boston, Massachusetts of fugitive slave Anthony Burns. 8
- The Majority Opinion
“That [the Separate Car Act] does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery … is too clear for argument … A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races — a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color — has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races … The object of the [Fourteenth A]mendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” — Henry Billings Brown, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court 9
- The Lone Dissenting Opinion
“Our Constitution is color–blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law … 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 … The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficient purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.” — John Marshall Harlan, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court 10
Background Notes On The 1896 Justices
Stephen Johnson Field
Associate Justice Field was nominated to the United States Supreme Court by Abraham Lincoln (Republican). 11
Edward Douglass White, Jr.
Associate Justice White was nominated to the United States Supreme Court by Grover Cleveland (Democrat) in 1894, but was elevated to serve as the 9th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1910 by William Howard Taft (Republican). 12
Henry Billings Brown (Author of the Majority Opinion)
Associate Justice Brown hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and instead served as a federal prosecutor. 13
David Josiah Brewer
Plessy versus Ferguson was a 7 to 1 decision because Associate Justice Brewer, did not participate in the decision, due to the death of his daughter. 14
The 1896 Justices By The Numbers
: Were Nominated By Republican Presidents
: Were Adults During The American Civil War (1861–1865)
: Were Members Of A Mainstream Christian Denomination
: Were Republicans
The Appointment of Supremely Empty Promises
“The real difference between the United States and other nations lies not in the worlds of the preamble to the Constitution, but in the fact that the substantive clauses of the Constitution are enforced by individuals independent of and not beholden to the elected branches.” — Judge Harold H. Greene, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia who was nominated by President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr. in 1978. 15
For years political analysts have pointed out that the prevailing power of the presidency lies in the office holder’s United States Supreme Court appointments. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, interpreting the “Supreme Law” of the land. As the Judicial Branch of our government, 16 the Supreme Court stands as the final word on matters of law and balances the powers of both the Legislative and Executive branches. Once the Supreme Court has made a decision, no other court can overturn or even review that decision. The average justice serves for fourteen (14) years and retires at age seventy-one (71). 17 Supreme Court justices are appointed for life so they never have to face re–election or make sure that their decisions please the president who appointed them. 18
Note To The Republican Party’s Leadership Team
It’s easy to say Supreme Court appointments are important and it’s easy to see how a President’s nomination(s) to the Supreme Court can profoundly impact our lives. However, historically and heinously these “supreme appointments” have harmed the lives of Black Americans. Regardless of the political party that nominated the Court’s justices, Black Americans, Native Americans and Disabled Americans have suffered by way of Supreme Court decisions. You cannot influence the hearts and minds of the members in oppressed communities, to vote for your Presidential candidate on the basis of future Supreme Court appointments. It just won’t work. We’ve heard that, seen that, been there and done that before.
Here’s A Grand Old Adage For The Grand Old Party’s Leadership
- We don’t care how much you know — until we know how much you care.
Brothers, we really need to talk.
01. Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College “The Supreme Court in 1896” (http://bit.ly/MaB3uN). See also The Fuller Court.jpg, Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/LdTKxm). This photograph has been photoshopped to reflect the image of Associate Justice Stephen J. Field from California instead of Associate Justice Joseph McKenna from California.
02. Plessy v. Ferguson, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/mMv0D).
03. One-drop rule, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/KSACx).
04. Plessy v. Ferguson, Wiki Historia (http://bit.ly/M256W1).
05. Homer Plessy, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/bIvaop).
06. John Howard Ferguson, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/M1L2Px).
07. Brown v. Board of Education, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/mK1Nv).
08. The Writing Of Henry David Thoreau: with bibliographical introductions and full indexes, Volume 10 (http://bit.ly/KuHGtD).
09. Plessy v. Ferguson 1892, United States of American Chronology (http://bit.ly/Qyonf).
11. Stephen Johnson Field, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/KuL47N).
12. Edward Douglass White, Jr., Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/Le4Xde).
13. Henry Billings Brown, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/gpPnnd).
14. David Josiah Brewer, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/KZyivl).
15. Elected v. Appointed Judges; Which Selection Process is Best?, Landmark Supreme Court Decision, Margaret (Marnie) Brown and Professor Theodore Myhre, University of Washington (http://bit.ly/KIZNec). See also Harold H. Greene, Wikipedia http://bit.ly/eQdjja).
16. The Judicial Branch, The White House (http://1.usa.gov/bYqzsp).
17. Ed Grabianowski, “How Supreme Court Appointments Work”, HowStuffWorks, Inc. (http://bit.ly/bpq1I2).