Until BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954), Plessy was the constitutional linchpin for the entire structure of Jim Crow in America. Borrowed from LEMUEL SHAW in ROBERTS V. BOSTON (1851), the Plessy Court established the SEPARATE BUT EQUAL DOCTRINE : black persons were not denied the EQUAL PROTECTION OF THE LAWS safeguarded by the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT when they were provided with facilities substantially equal to those available to white persons.
Florida enacted the first Jim Crow transportation law in 1887, and by the end of the century the other states of the old Confederacy had followed suit. Louisiana's act, which was challenged in Plessy, required railroad companies carrying passengers in the state to have "equal but separate accommodations" for white and colored persons by designating coaches racially or partitioning them. Black citizens, who denounced the innovation of Jim Crow in Louisiana as "unconstitutional, unamerican, unjust, dangerous and against sound public policy," complained that prejudiced whites would have a "license" to maltreat and humiliate inoffensive blacks. Plessy was a TEST CASE. Homer A. Plessy, an octoroon (one-eighth black), boarded the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans bound for Covington in the same state and sat in the white car; he was arrested when he refused to move to the black car. Convicted by the state he appealed on constitutional grounds, invoking the THIRTEENTH and FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS. The Court had already decided in Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Ry. v. Mississippi, (1890) that Jim Crow cars in INTRASTATE COMMERCE did not violate the COMMERCE CLAUSE.
Justice JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN was the only dissenter from the opinion by Justice HENRY B. BROWN. That the state act did not infringe the Thirteenth Amendment, declared Brown, "is too clear for argument." The act implied "merely a legal distinction" between the two races and therefore had "no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude." Harlan, believing that STATE ACTION could have no regard to the race of citizens when their CIVIL RIGHTS were involved, would have ruled that compulsory racial SEGREGATION violated the Thirteenth Amendment by imposing a BADGE OF SERVITUDE.
The chief issue was whether the state act abridged the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. One reads Brown's opinion with an enormous sense of the feebleness of words as conveyors of thought, because...