Plessy v. Ferguson: Impact & Summary

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson explains the impact of Plessy v. Ferguson, an important Supreme Court decision made in 1896. The Court ruled on the concept of 'separate but equal' and set back civil rights in the United States for decades to come. Updated: 12/13/2019

The Lawsuit

Even though slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, racial discrimination did not end with it. States continued to make laws that blocked equal opportunities for African Americans. Homer Plessy decided to test one of those laws to see if he could change it. Plessy lived in Louisiana and, like many people there, he was a Creole; he was not completely white and he was not completely African American. However, in the eyes of the law, he was African American.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy sat in the section of a railroad car that was for 'whites only.' As he expected, he was arrested after he refused to move. Judge John Howard Ferguson of Louisiana ruled against Plessy's argument that making him sit in a separate part of the train violated his constitutional rights. Plessy then took his case to the Supreme Court.

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  • 0:01 The Lawsuit
  • 1:04 The Ruling
  • 1:55 The Impact
  • 3:05 The End of Plessy v. Ferguson
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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The Ruling

Plessy's lawyer argued that Louisiana's Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment grants citizenship rights to anyone born in the United States. It also says that no laws should be made to take away the rights of U.S. citizens.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Plessy's lawyer. Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown said that even though the 14th Amendment may have intended to make African Americans and white people 'equal before the law,' it did not necessarily intend for the two races to be 'equal in society.' According to Justice Brown, whites should not be forced to be in the same public places as African Americans.

The Impact

Plessy v. Ferguson allowed 'separate but equal,' also known as segregation, to become law in the United States. After this, Jim Crow laws, which were a system of laws meant to discriminate against African Americans, spread across the U.S. For decades, any type of public facility could be legally separated into 'whites only' and 'blacks only.' That meant that buses, water fountains, lunch counters, restrooms, movie theaters, schools, courtrooms, and even the United States Army could all be segregated.

Rules and laws were also made to prevent African Americans from voting. Even though the law stated that the separate facilities had to be equal, most of the time they were not. White people almost always had access to the best facilities, especially in schools. Civil rights activists protested against segregation in the 1950s and 1960s and were often met with violence from white people who did not want the laws to change.

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