Plessy v. Ferguson

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Plessy v. Ferguson
163 U.S. 537
Decided: May 18, 1896

Plessy v. Ferguson was a case handed down in 1896 by the Supreme Court. Homer Plessy, a man who did not consider himself "African American" and certainly looked white, but qualified as "black" under "1-drop rules" (by the terminology of the time he was an "octoroon"), sued after being kicked out of a "whites only" car on a railroad. After he agreed to sit there as a test case, and winning his suit at all levels, the Supreme Court handed Plessy a loss for himself and for the rights of Americans everywhere.

The holding of Plessy made clear that the equality guarantees of the newly passed Fourteenth Amendment were confined to rights of a civil and political nature. Social rights — such as equality in the public sphere — were not guaranteed. Specifically, Plessy held that the federal government, or state governments, may classify on the basis of race and perform social engineering activities designed to separate the races so long as they did not become inordinately oppressive. The majority of the Court did not define what would be inordinately oppressive.

Justice John Marshall Harlan filed a blistering dissent, arguing for a colorblind Constitution, and stating that he would have stricken down segregation over 50 years before the Court did in Brown v. Board of Education. He correctly predicted that the decision was going to be as infamous as Dred Scott v. Sandford.

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