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Refresher Course: How Plessy v. Ferguson continues to have an impact on U.S. courts

Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the principals in the Plessy V. Ferguson court case, pose for a photograph in front of a historical marker in New Orleans, on Tuesday, June 7, 2011. Homer Plessy, the namesake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 "separate but equal" ruling, was granted a posthumous pardon, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.
Bill Haber
/
AP
Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, descendants of the principals in the Plessy V. Ferguson court case, pose for a photograph in front of a historical marker in New Orleans, on Tuesday, June 7, 2011. Homer Plessy, the namesake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 "separate but equal" ruling, was granted a posthumous pardon, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.

Every other Tuesday, the team behind Civics 101 joins NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

The landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson upheld legal segregation in 1886. Nick Capodice and Julia talk about how the case continues to be relevant today.

You can listen to Civics 101 here, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Transcript

What kind of America did the Plessy case happen in? 

Well, this America was a few decades after the Civil War. This was a time when reconstruction had been actively overthrown and dismantled by those who opposed it. This was an America where some Americans were fighting to make good the promises and protections outlined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. And lastly, this was an America where separation, and I'm talking racial separation, was a national phenomenon. And in Louisiana specifically, that meant that Black people and white people had to sit in different train cars. That's the setting for this case.

What event set this case into motion? 

A gentleman named Homer Plessy. He was a 30-year-old Black man. He was an activist. He sat in the white car. He was asked to move to the car of his race and he refused. And he was summarily removed from the train by a police officer in front of everybody. And the one thing I have to let listeners know about this case: this was not like a one-off act of protest. This was a planned, rehearsed event organized by the Citizens Committee. It had been organized for weeks, and the sole intent was to challenge Louisiana's train law. And this challenge worked. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what did the ruling establish? Is this where the “separate but equal” doctrine comes into play?

Yeah, I got to say, Julia, if you'd asked me about this case a couple of years ago, I would have said this is the case that established the doctrine of separate but equal. But I was woefully misinformed.

Now, first off, doctrines, which are laws, they're not created by courts. They're created by congresses. They're enforced by executive offices. So Plessy loses this case. That train law was deemed constitutional. But when he lost the case, it meant that the court sanctioned a long, long held practice of racial separation.

By the way, this notion of separate but equal, those words were never mentioned in the Plessy decision. This case is one we call an anti cannon decision. It is a Supreme Court decision that is universally agreed upon as having been incorrect. It was decided poorly.

Do the ideals behind the case still exist in our laws today?

This decision in Plessy v Ferguson, it claimed utter neutrality, right? The law was “neutral.” It professed not to be discriminatory based on race, and all but one of the Supreme Court justices agreed on that. But claiming neutrality was and remains a dodge for reality, for what's going on.

Like, if you look at the fairly recent restrictive voting law in Georgia, this is Senate Bill 202. This is a law that was created in the wake of the 2020 election, after Biden won Georgia. It was based on an utterly unproven claim that there was voter fraud in that state. And the fallout is that this bill lets the Republican majority state government disqualify voters for myriad reasons. It bans food and water for those waiting in long lines. Now, nowhere in this bill is the word race mentioned. It is neutral in its words, on its face, but its effect disenfranchises Black voters. So the tenets and the decision from Plessy v. Ferguson are not eliminated. They reverberate today.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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