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The United States Constitution is not a very detailed document. It lays out the basic structure of government, and the details are filled in with legislation and clarified and reinforced by court decisions. One of the most consequential Supreme Court decisions was the 1896 case of Plessy v Ferguson, which set the precedent that segregating people by race was acceptable. This meant that every public accommodation had the right to refuse to serve Black Americans and that even public institutions like schools could be segregated. While the decision did stipulate that the segregated accommodations be "separate but equal," the equal part of that equation was often left out.

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Re-Writing Race in Early American New Orleans, Nathalie Dessens -
James C. Cobb, “Segregating the New South: The Origins and Legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson,” 12 Georgia State University Law Review 1017 (2012).
Keith Medley, We As Freeman: Plessy V. Ferguson. Gretna, La. : Pelican Pub. Co., 2012.

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#crashcourse #history #segregation
Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course  Black American History.

So far, we’ve talked about a few different legal cases, and there  will be even more to discuss as we move forward. That’s because throughout US history, the law has  been used both to fight against the oppression of.

Black people, but also has been used as a way to  perpetuate that oppression. And in 19th century America there was a whole lot of the latter. Counter to what you may have been told, the law is not colorblind, it is not neutral.

Many laws  and court rulings were not enacted in “objective” ways, but in ways that were specifically and  intentionally designed to maintain Black Americans as second-class citizens, that is, if they were  going to even be considered citizens at all. Today, we’re going to look at a landmark  case in the Supreme Court, that, in 1896, codified and formalized racial segregation; the  case was Plessy v Ferguson, and its consequences would have a decades-long impact on the social  fabric of American life. Let's start the show.

Plessy vs Ferguson determined that Black  Americans could be kept separate from White. Americans in public spaces and facilities,  under the premise (the false premise) that those facilities were actually equal. It legalized segregation and legitimated the racist laws that former Confederates  had passed in many of the southern states.

At the center of the case was Homer Plessy, a  shoemaker born around the time of the Civil War in New Orleans, Louisiana. And what many  people don’t know about Plessy, is that, technically, he was only ⅛ Black. If you saw him  in the street -- or on a train -- you might be surprised to know he was considered a Black man.

This is how race began to function in the United States, what people referred to as, “the one-drop  rule”, the idea being that if you had “one-drop” of African blood, you were considered Black.  (It’s important to note here though, that there is no such thing as “Black blood” or “white  blood” or blood of any color other than red. Race, you always have to remember, is  a social construct. It was made up!

And it was made up specifically to create and  maintain the artificial demarcations of power, the power that allowed someone to enforce  absurd laws like these). But, I digress. Anyway, there were many mixed race people like  Plessy in New Orleans.

And there still are, I should know, I’m from there. Louisiana at this time, was a state that was very different from the others in  that it was thoroughly multiracial. Due to the multiple groups of colonists that settled in that  region from a wide variety of different nations, it was not uncommon for individuals to  be racially mixed with French, English,.

Spanish, Black, and Native American. In addition to that, early 19th century New Orleans also had a large  free Black population, many of whom were professionals. And they were able to  integrate into society relatively well - they could choose the schools they wanted to go to,  marry who they chose, and almost live a life that, on the surface, made it seem like free Black  people were as free as any white person.

But this wouldn’t last, and the government  made it a priority to put Black Americans in their place. As a result, Black  people, as they have for centuries, resorted to activism to attempt to build the sort  of society they deserved to live in. And Homer Plessy was involved in that activism directly.

Plessy was the Vice-President of the Justice, Protective, Educational, and Social  Club. Their goal was to improve the New Orleans public education system. And even though New Orleans was, traditionally, relatively integrated,  not long after the end of Reconstruction,.

White supremacy started to rear its ugly head. A new law called “the Separate Car Act of 1890” was passed in Louisiana and segregated railroad  cars by race. But the Black activist community in New Orleans refused to let an act like that  go unchallenged.

Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Pulling from activism tactics that had  been used in other Southern cities, local activists of color called the Committee of  Citizens started to organize a protest against this law. They hoped to use it as a test-case  in the court system against what they saw as an explicitly unjust law.

This wasn’t a random act of civil disobedience, this was a well orchestrated plan. The railroad  company was made aware of Plessy’s race prior to him showing up to the station. The Committee  of Citizens even hired a private detective who had the power to arrest him specifically  for violating the Separate Car Act and not some other law.

This way they could make sure they  were challenging that specific law in court. The plan was for Plessy to sit down in  the “Whites Only” section of the train, and for the detective to arrest, detain,  and charge him. And that’s what happened.

So in 1892, Plessy boarded a “Whites Only”  car on the East Louisiana Railroad. When the conductor approached him and asked him about  his race, he explained that he was 1/8 black, and refused to move to the “Colored Only”  section. The aforementioned detective, then removed Plessy from the train and arrested him.

This was all according to the Committee of Citizens’ plan and they were  there ready to bail him out. Plessy had done his job. The next step was for them to  challenge the Separate Car Act of 1890 in court.

Thanks, Thought Bubble. Plessy was ultimately charged for the crime of sitting in a “Whites Only'' car.  That decision was upheld in the state court, but the legal question made its way to the Supreme  Court. And this was a really, really big deal!

The case’s appeal to the Supreme Court  showed how seriously the Committee of. Citizens took this issue because they pushed for  the appeal. And most importantly just like today, when cases go to the Supreme Court, it's  because the court believes that there is something important for them to say about the  issue.

They want to make a national statement, and possibly set a new  precedent...and boy did they ever. Plessy’s lawyers argued that the Louisiana  segregation law violated his 13th and 14th. Amendment rights.

You might remember them  as two of the Reconstruction Amendments, which were passed after the Civil  War to enfranchise Black Americans. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery  and, for the sake of this argument, the state-sponsored subjugation of Black  Americans. And the 14th Amendment gave Black Americans citizenship rights and equal protection.

Plessy’s lawyers also argued that The Separate Car Act in Louisiana reinforced the false idea that  White Americans were superior to Black Americans. Well, the Supreme Court rejected all of these  arguments. Basically they argued: the legal question about whether the Louisiana law promoted  Black American inferiority wasn’t relevant.

And infamously, the Supreme Court also stated  that separate facilities mandated by the law were actually OK - as long as each  race's facilities were “equal.” Justice Henry Brown said in the opinion,  “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption  that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of  inferiority. If this be 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.” Hmmm… On the other side, Justice John Marshall  Harlan was the only one who dissented, stating that on a functional level, “The white  race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country” and that behavior is unconstitutional. He used the term colorblind to describe the constitution, arguing that the rights  in the Constitution apply to everyone.

The case was decided 7-1 in favor of  Ferguson (the Louisiana state judge who originally ruled against Plessy). The Plessy decision legalized and codified what was already happening  to Black Americans: segregation, humiliation, and exclusion in everyday life. It’s sometimes  considered to be the start of the Jim Crow era.

So when you watch those civil rights movies  they show on MLK Day or look at the pictures in your textbooks of “Whites Only” stores and  water fountains, know that the United States legal system protected white supremacy  through segregation for almost 70 years. In Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court  essentially said, it’s okay to keep Black and white people in separate facilities  because the act of simply separating them, itself, doesn’t make their treatment unequal.  But, practically, every member of the court knew that wasn’t true. Everyone knew that Black Americans weren’t provided with the resources to  create equal spaces for themselves, and that the facilities and accommodations that they were  provided with, were often of lower quality than their white counterparts.

And that wasn’t by accident. Part of the reason that many white people wanted  to keep things separate in the first place, was because they wanted a  physical and social manifestation of the inequality between Black and white people.  And this is what Plessy v Ferguson provided. The Supreme Court was given a test with Plessy  v Ferguson, and it is a test that it failed.

And it is a profound reminder of the power the  judicial system has had, and continues to have, in shaping the landscape of American life. And while we must study, learn from, and acknowledge the court’s failure, our country  does not have to be defined by it. Moving forward, we can make a different set of choices, enact  different laws, and have different court rulings, that center justice, equity, and opportunity  for every single person in this country.

Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time.