122 years ago today, a humble but brave shoemaker boarded a train.

By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor

500px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_CourtOn this day in 1892 Homer Plessy was arrested for refusing to leave his seat in the “whites-only” car of a train. The resulting court case, which Plessy lost, generated one of the most disgraceful decisions the Supreme Court of the United States ever made.

On June 7, 1892 thirty year old Homer A. Plessy boarded a train in New Orleans. A short time later, Plessy was arrested and removed from the train at Press and Royal streets by a private detective with arrest powers. The detective had actually been hired by the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans), a civil rights group of which Plessy was a member. They were challenging Louisiana’s 1890 separate-car law.

Homer Plessy
Homer A. Plessy

Homer Plessy was born Homère Patrice Plessy to French speaking Creole parents. His middle name was later changed to Adolphe, after his father. He was what was called an “octraoon,” meaning that he was 7/8 white, and had one-eighth African blood. He was light skinned, and could easily pass for white. In fact, 122 years ago today, Plessy bought a first-class ticket and boarded the “whites only” car.

The Committee hired the private detective to arrest him and remove him from the train in order to create a court case. Plessy was not a lawyer or politician. His primary attribute that made him perfect for the assignment was that he was white enough to buy a ticket to a whites only coach, but black enough to be in violation of the segregation law.

Incidentally, the railroad companies did not like the law. It meant that if even a single person of color bought a ticket, they had to add a “colored” car to the train, adding to their own expense, which would have otherwise been unnecessary.

After his arrest, he was taken to the Orleans Parish jail, where he stayed overnight. He was released the next day on $500 bond.

One month after his arrest, Plessy’s case was heard by Judge John Howard Ferguson. His lawyer, Albion Tourgee, argued that Plessy’s civil rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments had been violated. Judge Ferguson rejected this argument, ruling that Louisiana law gave the state the power to regulate railroads within the state, which included enforcing segregation laws.

The Louisiana State Supreme Court upheld Ferguson’s ruling. They did not allow a rehearing, but did allow a petition for writ of error. This petition was granted Certiorari by the US Supreme Court.

Four years later, arguments for Plessy v. Ferguson were heard by the Court. Attorney Albion Tourgée argued that the state of Louisiana had violated the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments. In particular Tourgée pointed to Section One of the 14th Amendment, which states:

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law.”

Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered the majority opinion of the Supreme Court on May 18, 1896. The court found for the State of Louisiana and Judge Ferguson in it’s 7-1 majority opinion. There were eight votes due to the absence of Justice David Brewer, whose daughter had passed away. The dissenting vote was by Justice John Marshall Harlan. One line from Harlan’s dissent has been quoted widely:

“I am of opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that state and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States.”

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision created the doctrine of “separate but equal.” It also legitimized the machinery of segregation. Equal rights laws passed after the Civil War were set aside, and impetus was given to increasingly rigid segregation laws in the South. The idea that anything went as long as it was called “equal” by the states. However, education was one of the first public institutions to be adversely affected. Funding for all black schools suffered, and were anything but equal.

Things did not change until the Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954. The ill-considered and wrong-headed decision of the SCOTUS in Plessy v. Ferguson was reversed.

122 years ago today, a humble but brave shoemaker boarded a train, setting in motion a series of events that left a permanent stain on the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Ruling: PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) 


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50 thoughts on “122 years ago today, a humble but brave shoemaker boarded a train.

  1. Paul Schulte:

    I disagree with your views on a number of issues. Fair enough. But your intimidation that Mr.Plessy’s actions “set in motion a system of segregation” reflects either a gross ignorance of post-Civil War history or its willful distortion. And your later Johnny did it too observation that racism was also a northern phenomenon serves only to emphasize the absurdity of your initial comment. The Plessy decision was a political accommodation to an already firmly established institutional, cultural and religious system of white supremacy. I am mystified by the fact that your opinions so freely range between thoughtful reflection and League of the South revisionism.

  2. Karen S.:

    My view is that judicial action forced legislative action on civil rights. In other words, decisions by the courts compelled legislatures to enact laws necessary to give practical effect to civil rights. And legislative action entailed a great deal of kicking and screaming.

  3. MikeA, Absolutely correct. Malcolm X then had the final part of the equation. Stay away from drugs and alcohol. Take care of your family, black men. Educate your children. Create your own wealth by building businesses in your own community. Do not allow yourself to become beholden to white politicians who only want to enslave you again w/ a few free dollars. Unfortunately, that message died in a ballroom in NYC. And, in a capitalist society, I would argue Malcolm’s message was the most important part of the equation. I’m sure an attorney would argue the first part of the equation was the most important. Reasonable people can disagree.

  4. Mike – I think my point was/is that Mr. Plessy’s actions legally codified a system of segregation. I do agree I could and should have worded it better. I think a lot faster than I type.😉 The Plessy decision was a legal accommodation, not a political one. I am not sure how you got a political accommodation out of a Supreme Court case.

    Plessy v Ferguson was a set-up. It was a manufactured case to get it before the Supreme Court. Rosa Parks was a manufactured case. Ms Parks was selected to break the law. She didn’t suddenly decide to have tired feet after a long day of work and decided to sit in the ‘whites only’ section of the bus. Roe was not gang-raped, she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. Had Roe told the truth, the case would never have gotten to the Supreme Court. The attorneys for Miranda picked the wrong Amendment to appeal under and the Supreme Court asked them to re-brief the case using the Amendment they upheld.

  5. Citizens United was a set up. The present Court is about on par with the Court of yesteryore that gave us Plessy and the Court back in the good old days that gave us Dred Scott. We might need a civil war to overturn Citizens United. Impeach Roberts, Alito and Uncle Clarence now.

  6. Mike A – yes, there was a lot of kicking and screaming during the legislative action, as there always is during times of upheaval.

    Why do you believe that the courts compelled legislators to act, that they would not have done so otherwise? The courts upheld the laws, so the laws were changed. It is not the courts’ duty to legislate from the bench, but to apply the law. It is the legislators’ duty to change the law.

  7. I think the salient point is when judges try to legislate from the bench, then we no longer have a republic. The SCOTUS is appointed, not elected. So if we allow them to legislate, we can get wildly oscillating changes to the law, depending on presidential appointments.

    If you don’t like a law, then change the law. Of course, the SCOTUS is supposed to determine if a law is unconstitutional, but it is not supposed to go farther than that and legislate from the bench.


    A short time before his death on April 15, 1865, Lincoln met with General Benjamin F. Butler, who reported that the President spoke to him of “exporting” the blacks.107

    “But what shall we do with the negroes after they are free?,” Lincoln said. “I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes … I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves.” Along with a request to Butler to look into the question of how best to use “our very large navy” to send “the blacks away,” the President laid bare his fears for the future:

    If these black soldiers of ours go back to the South, I am afraid that they will be but little better off with their masters than they were before, and yet they will be free men. I fear a race war, and it will be at least a guerilla war because we have taught these men how to fight … There are plenty of men in the North who will furnish the negroes with arms if there is any oppression of them by their late masters.

    To his dying day, it appears, Lincoln did not believe that harmony between white and black was feasible, and viewed resettlement of the blacks as the preferable alternative to race conflict. ” … Although Lincoln believed in the destruction of slavery,” concludes black historian Charles Wesley (in an article in The Journal of Negro History), “he desired the complete separation of the whites and blacks. Throughout his political career, Lincoln persisted in believing in the colonization of the Negro.”108

    Frederick Douglass, a gifted African American writer and activist who knew Lincoln, characterized him in a speech delivered in 1876:109

    In his interest, in his association, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of the white man. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people, to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.

    Allan Nevins, one of this century’s most prolific and acclaimed historians of US history, summed up Lincoln’s view of the complex issue of race, and his vision of America’s future:110

    His conception ran beyond the mere liberation of four million colored folk; it implied a far-reaching alteration of American society, industry, and government. A gradual planned emancipation, a concomitant transportation of hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions of people overseas, a careful governmental nursing of the new colonies, and a payment of unprecedented sums to the section thus deprived of its old labor supply — this scheme carried unprecedented implications.

    HOW ABOUT THAT “CRAZY ABE?” With his Emancipation Proclamation, he thought he had the power to legislate from the executive branch; that would be “dictate,” right? Old “Crazy Abe” knew he had no such power:

    “If all earthly power were given me,”

    said Lincoln in a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, “I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” After acknowledging that this plan’s “sudden execution is impossible,” he asked whether freed blacks should be made “politically and socially our equals?” “My own feelings will not admit of this,” he said, “and [even] if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not … We can not, then, make them equals.”5

    The intent of the Founders, the Preamble and the Constitution were irretrievably nullified long ago. The surreptitious and inexorable implementation of the principles of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto began in America soon after the Bill of Rights was ratified.

  9. randyjet – Great rational argument about the proper role of the federal courts on gay marriage. Like the Plessy decision, the Judges want to make decisions that make them popular with others. A right can be completely missing from the Constitution, but they will find a way to wiggle it in there. I don’t understand how, after reading what you articulate so well, others just blankly stare and ignore it. They neither affirm nor deny what you say. It is like they don’t know what to do with it.

    • davidm I am neutral on the subject of gay marriage. The rational approach would be to look at the relative costs and benefits, and then weigh the effect on society and if this is what society wants do it through the legislative process. It really bothers me and any leftist person that many if not most of those who advocate for gay marriage use the libertarian point of view and think that they have no obligation or duties to our country or society. That the individual is the be all and end all of our political concerns. As a leftist, my position is that we ALL are in this society together and have rights and duties to each other as well as our society. My wants and needs while not being met, does not mean that I have obligations that I can blow off since I do not get what I want. It is infantile ranting that I have heard from too many proponents of gay marriage.

  10. Eleazer Bryan wrote: “Some cheer today(as no doubt the conservatives did in 1896) when they achieve a political victory via the Court not able to be obtained via the Congress, President, and state governments (the Constitutional system) but at some point in time the Solomon’s will err in their divination to a degree that will finally and completely cut in half the republic itself. When the Court changes the meaning of words in order to achieve a politically desired result (either conservative or liberal) our system of government is undermined.The end justifies the means method produces short term gain (for the side exercising their power) but in the long run it pulls the rug out from underneath everyone.”

    Eleazer, nicely said. Do we actually believe our Constitutional system works? Guess not if our governments depart from it.

  11. Nick Spinelli wrote: “MikeA, Absolutely correct. Malcolm X then had the final part of the equation.”

    Nick, what are you talking about? Malcolm X believed in segregation. Malcolm X was against MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. He did not believe in equality or in the strategy of nonviolence. He believed the black race was superior to the white race. How could he have been the final part of the equation?

  12. Mike Appleton wrote: “… decisions by the courts compelled legislatures to enact laws necessary to give practical effect to civil rights. And legislative action entailed a great deal of kicking and screaming.”

    Okay, so you believe in Judicial Activism. You believe that the courts should lead the legislature down the path to the laws that they should write. Why not just get rid of the legislature? We could just have the Judges write and interpret the laws for specific situations, can’t we? Obviously we need a new Constitution to do it, but why operate under our Constitution when it seems to me that you do not believe in it?

    By the way, in your analysis, please do not ignore Jackie Robinson, Booker T. Washington, the NAACP, the Republican Civil Rights Movement led by Norris Wright Cuney, or the Black Activist ministers in churches leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr. As a lawyer, you may focus upon court decisions leading the way, or even individuals like Plessy acting on the behalf of a corporation, but there were many other players in the Civil Rights Movement.

  13. Paul Schulte:

    On re-reading my earlier post, it does appear a tad strident. I do not believe that Plessy codified discrimination. What it did was ratify what had already been codified by the states. I consider it a political decision because it was a capitulation to institutionalized racial hatred.

    I also believe that we should not discount the courage of Mr. Plessy on the basis of the manner in which the legal challenge was organized. The road to racial equality is paved with the bodies of those who attempted to “test” unjust laws and rigged judicial systems.

  14. davidm:

    Nick is quite capable of defending himself, and if I am speaking out of turn, I am confident he will let me know. But I believe you missed the entire meaning of his comment on Malcolm X. If you have not read his autobiography, it is a worthwhile endeavor. He understood that freedom and liberation are not synonymous, that it would be necessary for black people to liberate themselves. That was his message and he expressed it bluntly and truthfully.

  15. I find myself astonished.

    ¿¿¿¿”court mandated gay marriage”????

    It is one thing for a court to decide that two people who happen to be “gay” may choose to be married; it is quite another thing for a court to mandate that they be married.

    ¿Since when does allowing something to be permissible automatically make the something mandatory?

  16. Our Supreme Court has managed to make some even worse decisions lately….over half the court should be impeached….

    • John – at least half the decisions of the Supreme Court annoy me in one way or another, but I would not have them impeached because of it. The Constitution is designed to protect the judges from being forced into making ‘popular’ opinions only. Hence, lifetime appointments.

  17. Ref. Comment @ 3:22 pm

    OK. So you liked Lincoln then but you don’t like Lincoln now, right?

    It looks, more and more, like America is one great big mistake after another.

    Like it or not, literal adherence to, support and continuity of the Constitution was the sole duty of the SCOTUS.

    It failed.

  18. Paul,

    The Founders intended objective jurisprudence, not ideological partisanship. Lifetime appointments are only rational if qualified justices are unbiased, apolitical and consummately objective. The duty of the SCOTUS is to enforce the Constitution, not to nullify it. It is not the duty of the SCOTUS to enforce principles of the Communist Manifesto.

    The corruption of the Constitution, rather than its support and enforcement, has to have consequences for those whose duty it is to assure literal and strict -adherence.

    I apologize to intellectuals, pseudo intellectuals and other elitists, but the writings of the Founders, the Preamble and the Constitution are all written in clear English, understandable even to elementary school students.

    The singular American failure has been the SCOTUS which has “legislated from the bench” rather than support and implement the Constitution. The failure was caused by the absence of a mechanism to compel the SCOTUS to do its duty. There must be consequences for deliberate acts or omissions that result in the nullification of the writings of the Founders, the Preamble and the Constitution.

    • John wrote: “The singular American failure has been the SCOTUS which has “legislated from the bench” rather than support and implement the Constitution.”

      John, if only they would all approach the Constitution like Justice Scalia, right?

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