Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Justice Henry Brown wrote for a 7-1 majority that Louisiana’s Separate Car Act did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically.  If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”   The decision validated the policy of “separate but equal” for decades to come, giving support to state laws requiring segregation.

However,  Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent attacked the Louisiana law, saying that it was a “badge of servitude” that degraded African Americans. He famously wrote, “But in the view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens.  There is no caste here.  Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.  In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law…”

In this lesson, students will examine primary sources to evaluate the decision.

Download Instructions: Once you click either the image or the link – a PDF will open up in your browser. You will need to save the file to your computer to have access to it later. You can also print the file out once it opens if that is easier for you. You will find a “print icon” and a “save icon” in the upper left corner of the screen AFTER the PDF opens.