PLESSY v. FERGUSON (1896)|
After the Civil War, the South enacted black codes to keep their former slaves under tight control. For example, some states prohibited blacks, who were not a party to a suit, from testifying in court. Others subjected blacks to criminal penalties for breaching labor contracts. In contrast, whites were only liable in a civil suit for the same action. To strike down these black codes, the nation passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
During the years that followed, the Supreme Court attempted to define the parameters of equal protection. In Strauder v. West Virginia (1879), the Court struck down the murder conviction of the petitioner, a colored man, because the state only permitted "white males who are twenty-one years of age and who are citizens of this State" to serve as jurors. The Court found that the state denied the petitioner the equal protection of the laws because it compelled him "to submit to a trial for his life by a jury drawn from a panel from which the State has expressly excluded every man of his race." The Court added, "The very fact that colored people are singled out and expressly denied by a statute all right to participate in the administration of the law, as jurors, because of their color, though they are citizens, and may be in other respects fully qualified, is practically a brand upon them, affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others."
In 1896, the Court was presented with another opportunity to hear an equal protection case. This time, the petitioner challenged a Louisiana statute, which prohibited persons from occupying seats in railway coaches, "other than the ones assigned to them, on account of the race" to which they belong. Persons violating this statute may be subject to a fine or imprisonment.
Plessy argued that the Louisiana statute violated, among others, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. After the state courts found the railcar statute to be constitutional, Plessy petitioned the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court rulings.
Justice Harlan concluded by condemning the majority opinion. "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."