Vital Signs

Plessy v. Ferguson—One Hundred Years Later

One hundred years ago this May, Plessy V. Ferguson was decided. The Supreme Court's 1896 decision upheld Louisiana's law that required all passenger railways operating within the state to have "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races." Over the years, the import of the decision and public perceptions of such state regulations have been misunderstood and at times purposely distorted. Scholars have described the decision as the incarceration of blacks in "the Plessy prison." The real prison, however, holds all Americans and was built on an unwillingness to examine objectively this important period in American history.

Though Plessy receives enormous attention today in classrooms and in discussions of race relations (especially Justice John Marshall Harlan's dissenting opinion invoking the concept of a colorblind Constitution), the decision was largely ignored for many years. The newspapers of the day that did not disregard the Court's pronouncement gave it but scant attention. The New York Times, for instance, barely mentioned Plessy in its weekly column on railway news.

Routine affirmations of state regulations were hardly newsworthy in the 1890's. The War Between the States did change the nature of state and national relations, but the majority of citizens still accepted that the states were sovereign...

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