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Equality and the Supreme Court: A Primary Source Study of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education

Introduction:

Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education—were landmark decisions that helped shape race relations in the decades following. How did these cases deal with the constitutional principle of equality? And what can modern Americans learn from these cases to apply to contemporary times?

Handouts:

Handout A: Declaration of Independence Excerpts (1776)

Handout B: Fourteenth Amendment Excerpts (1868)

Handout C: Majority Opinion Excerpts (6-1), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) (Written by Justice Henry Billings Brown)

Handout D: Dissenting Opinion Excerpts, Plessy v. Ferguson (Written by Justice John Marshall Harlan)

Handout E: Segregation Laws Map, 1953   

Handout F: Washington, D.C. Public School

Handout G: Georgia School Room

Handout H: Majority Opinion Excerpts (9-0) Brown v. Board of Education (1954) (Written by Chief Justice Earl Warren)

Directions:

  • Have students read/view each handout below. Handouts E-G are external links to images. Students should answer the questions for each one before moving on to the next document. Finally, have students answer the analysis questions.

Plessy v. Ferguson DBQ

Handout A: Declaration of Independence Excerpts (1776)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

  1. What did the Declaration of Independence say all men equally have?

Handout B: Fourteenth Amendment (1868)

Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. 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, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

  1. This amendment was passed a few years after the end of the Civil War. Given your knowledge about that conflict, what do you think the purpose of this amendment was?
  2. What do you think “equal protection of the laws” means?

Handout C: Majority Opinion Excerpts (6-1), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) (Written by Justice Henry Billings Brown)

The object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to 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. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power.…

We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’s] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.…

The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.…

Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. 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.

  1. How did the Court distinguish between legal equality and social equality? Do you agree with their distinction? Why or why not?
  2. Did the majority believe that the separation of races by law was unconstitutional? Why or why not?

Handout D: Dissenting Opinion Excerpts, Plessy v. Ferguson (Written by Justice John Marshall Harlan)

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in 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. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful….

Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.

  1. What do you think the dissenting opinion means by “our constitution is color-blind”?
  2. What is the “real meaning” behind the Louisiana legislation according to this opinion?

 

Brown v. Board of Education DBQ

Handout E: Segregation Laws Map, 1953

  1. How does this map relate to the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson?

Handout F: Washington, D.C. Public School

Handout G: Georgia School Room

  1. Compare and contrast Handouts F and G.

Handout H: Majority Opinion Excerpts (9-0) Brown v. Board of Education (1954) (Written by Chief Justice Earl Warren)

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the [Fourteenth] Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws. Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…

In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms…

To separate [students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone…Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority.…

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated…are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

  1. What are some reasons that the Court gave to demonstrate that separate is actually unequal? How would you evaluate the strength of this argument?
  2. The Court based their opinion largely on “psychological knowledge” and not on a constitutional theory. Why do you think they did this?

Analysis Questions:

  1. In what way is the debate over equality as seen in Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education still going on in the modern-day? Give one concrete example.
  2. Given these two Supreme Court cases, how would you define equality?
  3. Some people believe the restricting voting to the age of 18 is an example of modern-day legal inequality. Given what you’ve just learned, do you agree? Do you think this is unjust? Why or why not?

Extension Activity:

Think the Vote is a platform that encourages students to engage with each other on current event questions related to constitutional principles and politics. We give away gift cards, BRI swag, and an entrance to win $1,000 to students with the best answers on each side of the weekly debate. This week’s question is: Can Congress Unilaterally Bar an Individual From Holding Public Office Through the Fourteenth Amendment?