African American train passenger Homer Plessy refused to sit in a car designated for black persons. Supported by a citizens committee opposed to segregation, Plessy’s noncompliance set up a legal challenge to racial segregation, particularly in many southern states. The Supreme Court validated racial segregation by ruling that the equal protections principles mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment could be honored with facilities that were “separate but equal.” This decision legalized segregation by race into separate public institutions such as schools, bathrooms, drinking fountains, public transport, movie theaters, and swimming pools. Justice John Marshall Harlan issued the lone dissenting vote, observing among other matters that the decision discriminated against African Americans who had fought in the Civil War.
MR. JUSTICE BROWN, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.
This case turns upon the constitutionality of an act of the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana, passed in 1890, providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races . . . .
2. By the Fourteenth Amendment, all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are made citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside, and the States are forbidden from making or enforcing any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, or shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or deny to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws . . . .
The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced . . . .
Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.