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Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1896, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that set the standard for racial segregation for decades to come. The foundation of the case is rooted in 1890, when the state of Louisiana passed a legislation known as the Separate Car Act; this mandated segregated accommodations for black and white passengers on train cars. Two years later, Homer Plessy boarded the train car that was designated for whites only. Because he was legally considered an octoroon – that is, a person with one-eighth of his ancestry being African American – he was arrested for violation of the state mandate.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Upon Plessy’s initial trial, his lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the state law; when he was found guilty, the ruling was appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. After he was again found guilty, the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In May 1896, the Supreme Court upheld Plessy’s conviction, saying that even though the Fourteenth Amendment ensured there was legal equality for blacks and whites, it did nothing to require that any other form of separation, social or otherwise, be eliminated. The power to determine whether a law was reasonable, they claimed, fell to the individual states due to their “police powers.” The case made it clear that “equal, but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” was perfectly justifiable in American society, giving rise to the “separate but equal” doctrine that ensured the creation and continuance of racial segregation throughout the nation for decades to come. It would not be until 1954, in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that the “separate but equal” doctrine would be overturned.

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