Saturday, May 18, 2013
May 18 (1872) Supreme Court affirms separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson; "It is to be regretted"
On this day, May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court validated the statue of the State of Louisiana requiring railroads to supply separate coaches for white and black persons. Former Kentucky lawyer and politician, Justin John M. Harlan issued a powerful (if singular) dissenting opinion. Among other things, he points out the incoherence of sanctioning the violation of civil rights in a public space, and then allowing states to punish private companies for so doing. Excerpts below.
"It is one thing for railroad carriers to furnish, or to be required by law to furnish, equal accommodations for all whom they are under a legal duty to carry. It is quite another thing for government to forbid citizens of the white and black races from traveling in the same public conveyance, and to punish officers of railroad companies for permitting persons of the two races to occupy the same passenger coach.
If a State can prescribe, as a rule of civil conduct, that whites and blacks shall not travel as passengers in the same railroad coach, why may it not so regulate the use of the streets of its cities and towns as to compel white citizens to keep on one side of a street and black citizens to keep on the other?
...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...
It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a State to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race...
...The thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done."