Law free essay: The Separate Car Act Paving way for the Plessy vs. Fergusson Case and Harlan’s Dissent
The Separate Car Act Paving way for the Plessy vs. Fergusson Case and Harlan’s Dissent
The Separate Car Act was a law that was enacted by legislature in the state of Louisiana in 1890. The Act assigned the Whites and African Americans and other people of color different accommodations in railroads located within Louisiana. The law required African Americans to travel on separate trains, cars and roads from those that were reserved for the Whites. Despite this, the Act required the Whites and the people of color to be treated equally in the different accommodations. However, segregation issues emerged after implementation of the law, which triggered negative reactions from the African Americans. The African Americans realized that the Separate Car Act led them to be treated as inferior citizens (Mason 11). The reactions of the African Americans and other citizens that were not Whites prompted for the emergence of the Plessy vs. Fergusson Case in 1892. In the case, Homer Plessy, who was partially a White and partially an African American, challenged the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act. Plessy did not win the case in the state courts. Ultimately, the case was taken to the US Supreme Court, where oral arguments about the constitutionality of the Act started in April 1896 (Aslakson 186). During deliberation in the US Supreme Court, Justice John Marshall Harlan gave a lone dissenting opinion, arguing that the Separate Car Act was not constitutional. The Plessy vs. Fergusson case and the dissent of Justice Harlan are among the major initial enquiries that preceded the overturning of the Separate Car Act in 1954 in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that took place in the US Supreme Court.
In order to understand the origin of the Separate Car Act, it is essential to explore the political conditions that preceded its establishment. Prior to the 1860s, before the end of the Civil War, African Americans in the US were generally treated as inferior citizens by the Whites. The slaves, for instance, had to accept their subordinate statuses. Since slavery had been common almost everywhere in the US, there was no need of developing laws meant to segregate the Whites from the African Americans (Aslakson 186). After the Civil War, however, slavery was abolished everywhere in the US. New laws were established, which were meant to end the slavery and to guarantee freedom to the freed slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was ultimately enacted in 1865, was meant to end slavery in all states in the US. The Fourteenth Amendment, which was enacted in 1868, was meant to ensure that all citizens of the US, including the freed slaves, had equal protection under the law. The Civil Rights Act, which was enacted in 1875, indicated that all US citizens were equal under the law. Also, the Act prohibited any form of discrimination on the use of facilities such as public transportation and restaurants. The two amendments and the Civil Rights Act prompted for peaceful integration between the former slaves and the Whites during the reconstruction era, after the Civil War (Tisdale 8). As such, segregation systems between the different races were not developed immediately after the war. Only some states, such as Texas, required some segregation based on race in transport systems. However, significant segregation based on race started becoming prevalent towards the end of 1870s. In 1877, in Hall v. DeCuir case, the US Supreme Court ruled that states could allow segregation on carriers such as street cars, railroads and riverboats. In 1883, the US Supreme Court supported the notion that the states could allow for separate but equal segregation based on race. In response, states started passing laws allowing segregation based on race in the second half of 1980s. Nine states adopted that law between1887 and 1892, including the Louisiana. The segregation laws, however, differed in details. Louisiana regarded its segregation law as Separate Car Act. Louisiana passed its segregation law in July 1890 (Tisdale 9).
The Separate Car Act stipulated that conveyances, such as railroads and streetcars for the Whites should be separate from the public conveyances of the African Americans and other minority racial groups. The law imposed fines on the passengers and railroad workers that failed to comply. In some circumstances, individuals who failed to comply could face a jail term. The Act stated that in the conveyances of the colored races and the Whites, quality must be enhanced in order to enhance comfort and equality (Cates 111). After the implementation of the Supreme Car Act, the colored races noted that they were not treated equally with the Whites in the separate public conveyance systems. Also, some of the Whites were not comfortable with the Act. In response, a Committee of Citizens, which was supported by both the Whites and the colored races, was formed in 1891. The committee decided to challenge the constitutionality of the Act. The members of the committee made a plan that involved taking a case to a State District Court. The committee hired a social reformer and a construction-era judge called Albion Tourgée as their legal counsel (Cates 111). The committee persuaded Plessy to enter an accommodation that was meant for the Whites only. The committee also made a plan with a policeman to arrest Plessy because of violating the Separate Car Act. After the case was taken to court in May 1892, Plessy argued that the Separate Car Act was not constitutional and that the arrest was against his rights. The committee, which was the plaintiff in the case, argued that the Act was against the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. In the State District Court, the judge who was involved in the case was called John H. Ferguson. Judge Ferguson ruled that the Separate Car Act was not unconstitutional. He stated that the content of the Act did not pave way for slavery, which was abolished under of the Thirteenth Amendment. Also, Judge Ferguson stated that the Separate Car Act did not lead to unequal treatment of the Whites and people of colored races. Thus, Judge Ferguson concluded that it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. As such, Judge Ferguson concluded that the rights of Plessy had not been violated (Cates 112).
After Judge Ferguson’s verdict, Plessy appealed to the State Supreme Court, with the help of legal counsel Tourgée. However, Plessy failed to succeed in the State Supreme Court as it gave a similar ruling to the one that had been given in the District Court. The US Supreme Court intervened through granting certiorari. Precisely, the judges of the US Supreme Court agreed to debate about the content of the Separate Car Act. In May 18, 1896, justice Henry Billings Brown rendered its verdict on behalf of the majority (Eitzen 115). Justice Brown stated that the Separate Car Act did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment since it did not lead to reestablishment of slavery. In addition, Justice Brown stated that the Act was meant to enhance legal equality of the Americans, not social equality. As such, Justice Brown concluded that the Act did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Out of eight judges of the US Supreme court, only Justice Harlan had an opposing opinion (Eitzen 115). Consequently, he did not vote. Instead, he wrote a dissent in which he expressed his views towards the Separate Car Act. Justice Harlan argued that the Separate Car Act was understood to presuppose the inferiority of the people of color, not to enhance equality between the people of color and the Whites. He argued that the act regulated civil rights of the African Americans and thus, it conflicted with the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment which requires all citizens to be treated equally and to be given equal protection under the law. Also, Harlan argued that the Separate Car Act supported the division of US citizens based on class differences. In this regard, Harlan concluded that the Act was unconstitutional. Despite the dissent, the resolution of the US Supreme Court was relied upon until 1954, as stated earlier (Eitzen 116).
Overall, the Separate Car Act was a controversial law that prevailed in the state of Louisiana. The Act was one of the laws that supported the segregation of the Whites from people of color. Also, the Act supported the division of the US citizens based on class differences. This paved way for the people of color to be treated as inferior citizens. The Plessy vs. Fergusson case and Justice Harlan’s dissent and remembered as some of the major initial efforts to challenge the the Act. Although the efforts of committee of justice, Plessy and Justice Harlan did not lead to significant influence initially, they played a good precedence for the reform of the Separate Car Act.
Aslakson, Kenneth R. Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in
Early New Orleans. New York: NYU Press, 2014. Print.
Cates, David. Plessy v. Ferguson: Segregation and the Separate but Equal Policy. Minnesota:
ABDO Publishing Company, 2012. Print.
Eitzen, Stanley and Janis E Johnston. Inequality: Social Class and Its Consequences. Routledge,
Mason, Herman. Politics, Civil Rights, and Law in Black Atlanta, 1870-1970. Charleston:
Arcadia Publishing, 2000. Print.
Tisdale, Rachel. Brown V. Board of Education. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2013.
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