In 1890, there was a Louisiana Statute that required all railroad companies to provide separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites. The law made it a crime for anyone to insist upon occupying an area not designated for his race. Plessy, who was seven-eighths white and one -eighth black, was charged for refusing to give up a seat designated for white passengers. During the course of his trial, he petitioned the state supreme to enjoin the trial judge, John Ferguson, to stop the proceedings against him. His petition was rejected at the state level, so Plessy petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessy argued that the Louisiana Law violated guarantees afforded him by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Surprisingly, the Supreme Court upheld the Plessy conviction. In Strauder, the justices felt that racial distinctions branded Black people, but in the Plessy case, that thinking was changed to one that upheld the states’ right to prohibit the commingling of the races. They felt that if Blacks felt inferior as a result of these separate facilities, it was because they allowed themselves to feel that way. The justices also cited the need for comfort and the preservation of the public peace and good order as determining factors. Also, the justices argued that separate schools for blacks and white children had been consistently upheld as proper, as have laws forbidding intermarriage.
It is important to note that there was one dissenting justice, Justice Harlan. Justice Harlan felt that this decision was in direct contradiction to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. He stated that the survival of the races depended upon the ability of the two to coexist peacefully. He argued that blacks were not a threat to whites, and that this decision proceeded “on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens. That, as all will admit, is the real legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.” (3)
Because Plessy was defeated in his quest for exoneration, racial discrimination remained the status quo. Blacks had been deemed unworthy, once again, and the Fourteenth Amendment rights had taken on a new meaning; nothing. In 1950, the case of Sweatt v. Painter came before the supreme court. Although not as earth shattering as Brown v. Board of Education, this case set the tone for that landmark decision of 1954.