Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) The United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson* 119 years ago today, May 18, 1896.
The high court ruling, which came with only one dissenting vote, says that "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races" on railroad cars is constitutional.
The Citizen's Committee, which organized the act of civil disobedience by Homer A. Plessy** to board a railroad car designated for whites only, responded to the ruling by saying:
"We as freemen still believe we were right and our cause is defeat but not with ignominy."
The dissenting view came from Kentucky's Justice John Marshall Harlan*** who wrote:
"Our constitution is color blind in respect of civil rights. All citizens are equal before the law."*
President John F. Kennedy made reference to Justice Harlan's comment in his address to the nation on civil rights on June 11, 1963.
The President said...
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue...as old as the Scriptures and...as clear as the American Constitution...whether ALL Americans are to be afforded equal rights and opportunities...
We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind, as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century."
Justice John Marhall Harlan
*Plessy v. Ferguson was used for more than 50 years to justify racial segregation in all public facilities such as hospitals, restaurants and schools. It was overturned by the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954.
**Homer Adolph Plessy (1862-1925) was born in New Orleans to parents of the French Creole Society. HAP became a shoemaker & in 1887 was VP of the Justice, Protective, Education & Social Club.
In 1892, he bought a 1st class ticket on a train in NO & sat in the "white-only" passenger car. HAP was arrested, tried & found guilty of violating Louisiana's Separate Car Law. The LA State Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision but allowed appeal to the US Supreme Court.
***John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911) was born in Harrodsburg, KY to a slaveholding family. His father was a lawyer & US Congressman. JMH graduated with honors from Centre College & later attended Transylvania University.
JMH joined his father's law firm and supported the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. He was appointed to the US Supreme Court by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 and served until his death.
His dissenting views in Plessy and other civil rights cases have been attributed in part to the influence of the social positions of the Presbyterian Church of which Harlan was a member.