A mere thirty-five years after slavery ended, a sophisticated and strategic group of African Americans challenged the Jim Crow “Separate Car Act” in the state of Louisiana by placing a fair-skinned Creole black man named Homer Plessy on the “whites only” railcar. This video presents how the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson helped legalize segregation and sent a message that the federal government favored states’ rights in all matters of fairness and equality.
In 1890, Louisiana passed a statute called the Separate Car Act which stated "that all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this state, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races, by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations. . . . " The penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment was a fine of $25 or 20 days in jail.The Plessy case was carefully orchestrated by both the Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, a group of blacks who raised $3000 to challenge the Act, and the East Louisiana Railroad Company, which sought to terminate the Act largely for monetary reasons. They chose a 30-year-old shoemaker named Homer Plessy, a citizen of the United States who was one-eighth black and a resident of the state of Louisiana. On June 7, 1892, Plessy purchased a first-class passage from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana and sat in the railroad car designated for whites only. The railroad officials, following through on the arrangement, arrested Plessy and charged him with violating the Separate Car Act. Well known advocate for black rights Albion Tourgee, a white lawyer, agreed to argue the case without compensation. In the criminal district court for the parish of Orleans, Plessy argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. John Howard Ferguson was the judge presiding over Plessy's criminal case in the district court. He had previously declared the Separate Car Act "unconstitutional on trains that traveled through several states." However, in Plessy's case he decided that the state could choose to regulate railroad companies that operated solely within the state of Louisiana. Therefore, Ferguson found Plessy guilty and declared the Separate Car Act constitutional. Plessy appealed the case to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision that the Louisiana law was constitutional. Plessy petitioned for a writ of error from the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge John Howard Ferguson was named in the case brought before the United States Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) because he had been named in the petition to the Louisiana Supreme Court and not because he was a party to the initial lawsuit. Although not specifically written in the decision, Plessy set the precedent that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal." The "separate but equal" doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools. The United States remained a legally segregated society until 1954, when a unanimous Supreme Court began to dismantle “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education. --from the Web site Landmark Supreme Court Cases
NARRATOR: In the period after the civil war, New Orleans was still the most racially liberal city in the South.
BRUCE RAEBURN (HISTORIAN): In the period of Reconstruction, New Orleans basically chartered freedom for black people here… liberty, enfranchisement, interracial marriage, public education, improved literacy, to some extent economic opportunity, had all been made available to them.
RALPH CASSIMERE (V.O): You had integration, not only race integration but integration by class. Well to do whites living in close proximity to poor whites. Working class blacks living in close proximity to blacks and whites who were better off than they were.
NARRATOR: In the 1890s, Jim Crow came to New Orleans. Public transportation was legally segregated. Homer Plessy , a Creole of Color, challenged the law all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Plessy was not an accident. There were activists in New Orleans who were very determined to challenge Jim Crow laws in that city. And when they passed the Railway Separation Act in 1890, requiring that black people sit in the back of railway cars, there were people who thought that this was illegal and immoral and they set out to challenge it.
RALPH CASSIMERE: He was purposely chosen to be a plaintiff in the case because he looked white. And he had been mistakenly seated in the white section of the train. The whole argument was that until he identified himself as black, there was no problem. Only when he told them that he was colored, was the problems. And he was told either he sat in the section reserved for color or he had to leave the train.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Plessy, like Rosa Parks, was in that first class car to challenge this law. It’s really startling when you think about that, because here you know thirty five years after slavery a very organized, very sophisticated political movement led entirely by African Americans aimed at confronting Jim Crow through the legal procedures, through the legitimate procedures that change American society.
NARRATOR: In 1896, the Court-in a landmark case known as Plessy v. Ferguson- sanctioned segregation- as long as the separate facilities were equal.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Plessy was an extraordinarily significant case. It legalized Jim Crow. It legalized separate but equal. This was the court that spoke not just for the South, but for the whole of the United States. It could have been an opportunity for America to move up the time line for racial reform and civil rights in this country, but instead it was a terrific setback.
BRUCE RAEBURN: Because what Plessy basically says is that whatever the state is doing, the federal government is not going to get involved. They’re going to let the state legislate segregation if they want to.
NARRATOR: Two years later, the court allowed states to legally disqualify most blacks from voting. In Louisiana alone, the black vote dropped from 130,000 to 5,000.
BRUCE RAEBURN: By 1899, 1900 it was becoming apparent that African American rights and opportunities would be eroding from this point on.
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