In 1890, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law requiring blacks and whites to sit in separate railroad cars. Homer Plessy, a black passenger, challenged the law under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law. While admitting the possibility that differential treatment could violate the Equal Protection Clause, and stating that states could not enact laws “for the annoyance or oppression of a particular class,” the Court credulously accepted the Legislature’s arguments that segregation furthered an interest in minimizing racial conflict. It dismissed claims that enforced separation “stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority” by saying that, if this were so, “it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
As Justice Harlan pointed out in dissent, there was abundant evidence that the government’s alleged concerns with maintaining racial harmony were pretextual. The law was plainly intended to send a message that “colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens.”
“Separate but equal” became constitutionally and culturally entrenched. Empowered by the Court’s rubber stamp of approval, proponents of segregation pursued more discriminatory laws and segregation became more difficult to resist. The sense that the issue had been settled by the Court lasted for decades.