Following the American Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and the 14th amendment defined citizenship, guaranteed the rights of citizens and equal protection under the law but racism was dominant in the south and social order was still to be determined. In an attempt to continue to limit the civil rights and liberties of African Americans and to ensure dominance of white supremacy, Jim Crow laws were put in place. It was the belief in the South that the requirement of equality of the Fourteenth Amendment could be met by keeping the races separate.
These laws widened the racial gaps even further with the perception that the black race was inferior. The government left the racial segregation up to the individual states. Blacks were entitled to receive the same public services and accommodations as whites, but in different facilities such as schools, water fountains, restaurant seating and transportation.
In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act which required “separate but equal” railroad cars for blacks and whites. A group of black activist formed a Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act along with the East Louisiana Railroad Company who wanted to terminate the Act because of the costs associated with providing “separate but equal” passenger coaches. They selected Homer Plessy for the challenge.
Homer Plessy was considered an African American by the Louisiana law of 1890, since he was seven eighth white and one eighth black. Since he was considered black, he was naturally expected to sit in the designated black area on the train. On June 7, 1892, he boarded the East Louisiana Railroad and sat in the white designated area. He refused to move and was arrested. He was found guilty of violating the Separate Car Act and appealed the Supreme Court of Louisiana who upheld the previous decision. The case went to the US Supreme Court arguing that the Separate Car Act was in violation of the 13th and 14th Amendments but with an eight person majority, the US Supreme Court upheld the decision.
Justice Henry Brown indicated that the Thirteenth Amendment was “too clear for argument” and the Fourteenth Amendment was “too enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
Justice John Harlan was opposed to the decision and was in the opinion that the Constitution was “color-blind and did not tolerate classes among citizens”. He believed the ruling would stimulate aggressions and encourage the belief that state enactments would defeat the purposes of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The decision of the US Supreme Court to uphold the separate but equal standard gave further support for segregation for years to come. The decision was guided by prejudice and not by legal theory. It took 50 years before the position of Justice John Harlan was recognized as what should have been the correct and legal ruling. 1954 the case of Brown vs. Board of Education eliminated “separate but equal” facilities and the racial separation would no longer be tolerated.