Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (Landmark Law Cases and American Society)

By in Civil Rights on July 20, 2013

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Six decades before Rosa Parks boarded her fateful bus, another traveler in the Deep South tried to strike a blow against racial discrimination—but ultimately fell short of that goal, leading to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Now Williamjames Hull Hoffer vividly details the origins, litigation, opinions, and aftermath of this notorious case.

In response to the passage of the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890, which prescribed “equal but separate accommodations” on public transportation, a group called the Committee of Citizens decided to challenge its constitutionality. At a pre-selected time and place, Homer Plessy, on behalf of the committee, boarded a train car set aside for whites, announced his non-white racial identity, and was immediately arrested. The legal deliberations that followed eventually led to the Court’s 7-1 decision in Plessy, which upheld both the Louisiana statute and the state’s police powers. It also helped create a Jim Crow system that would last deep into the twentieth century, until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and other cases helped overturn it.

Hoffer’s readable study synthesizes past work on this landmark case, while also shedding new light on its proceedings and often-neglected historical contexts. From the streets of New Orleans’ Faubourg Tremé district to the justices’ chambers at the Supreme Court, he breathes new life into the opposing forces, dissecting their arguments to clarify one of the most important, controversial, and socially revealing cases in American law. He particularly focuses on Justice Henry Billings Brown’s ruling that the statute’s “equal, but separate” condition was a sufficient constitutional standard for equality, and on Justice John Marshall Harlan’s classic dissent, in which he stated, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.”

Hoffer’s compelling reconstruction illuminates the controversies and impact of Plessy v. Ferguson for a new generation of students and other interested readers. It also pays tribute to a group of little known heroes from the Deep South who failed to hold back the tide of racial segregation but nevertheless laid the groundwork for a less divided America.

This book is part of the Landmark Law Cases and American Society series.

2 thoughts on “Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (Landmark Law Cases and American Society)

  1. Mark Klobas
    4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    A welcome introduction to a shameful case, July 12, 2012
    Mark Klobas (Tempe, AZ, USA) –

    This review is from: Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (Landmark Law Cases and American Society) (Paperback)

    Of all of the discredited decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, few are as roundly condemned today as the one issued in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In upholding a Louisiana law mandating the segregation of whites and blacks on Louisiana railroads, it unleashed a flood of measures that condemned two generations of African Americans to second-class existence throughout the South. In this book, Williamjames Hull Hoffer offers a history of the decision, one that sets it in its context so as to better understand the case and the underlying forces at work within it.

    Hoffer begins by introducing readers to 19th century New Orleans, a city where race relations were even more complicated than elsewhere in the South. The years of French and Spanish rule had left a sizeable community of Creoles, free persons of color. This community had a strong sense of pride in their own identity, and resented the discriminatory treatment they received in the antebellum American South. The Civil War and Reconstruction gave the Creole an opportunity to assert their legal equality, yet the end of Reconstruction soon brought a reversal of many of these gains at the hands of the “Redeemers” which took power. By the 1880s, laws appeared throughout the South heralding a return to a segregated South, one the Supreme Court endorsed in 1890 with the proviso that facilities for African Americans had to be the equal of whites.

    It was the passage of the Separate Car Act soon afterward by the overwhelmingly white Louisiana state legislature in 1890 which prompted Afro-Creole community leaders to mount a legal challenge. After an initial test case was threatened by a question of applicability, Homer Plessy was recruited to serve as a litigant, with his arrest providing the case the community leaders wanted. Here Hoffer provides a good concise analysis of the legal arguments made by both sides as the case worked its way to the Supreme Court, and he explains nicely both the majority decision authored by Henry Billings Brown and the famous dissent penned by John Marshall Harlan. With the decision effectively endorsing segregation a horde of new laws were passed that solidified the divide between whites and African Americans, not just in the South but in other places as well, where it stood until a later Court effectively reversed its decisions in the 1950s and 1960s.

    In summarizing the case with the pages of the book, Hoffer pulls off the difficult challenge of providing an account that is both concise and informative. His account of the political, legal, and social climate helps to explain the Plessy decision as a product of its time, yet one that often used a distorted reasoning in pursuit of the final result. It makes for depressing reading, yet by the end of the book the reader is left with a far better understanding of this pivotal legal decision and how it came to pass. Anyone seeking to learn about the Plessy case and its shameful legacy would do well to start with this informative book, which shines a much needed light on a dark moment in American history.

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  2. 2
    1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    A Wide, Deep Fissure in the Facade of American Virtue, May 21, 2013
    J. Stasny (Falls Church, Virginia United States) –

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    This review is from: Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (Landmark Law Cases and American Society) (Paperback)

    American history is filled with word pairs that many people recognize without knowing the story behind them. “Manifest Destiny.” “Woman Suffrage.” “Trail of Tears.” “Teapot Dome.”

    “Plessy v. Ferguson” is another. It is a U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1896 upholding the Louisiana Separate Car Act that required equal but separate rail cars for black and white passengers. Over the decades that followed, the precedent set by the decision helped legitimize blatant segregation. Williamjames Hull Hoffer of Seton Hall University has written a history that delivers the facts while back lighting a parade of failings about which he offers explanations for actions none can excuse or defend.

    This is a rich and valuable work. It establishes what Louisiana was like — what the nation was like — in the aftermath of the Civil War. It traces the effects of reconstruction and the attitudes of north and south. As part of a seamless narrative, the book includes biographical sketches of Homer Plessy, judge Ferguson, the attorneys on both sides of the case, and the Supreme Court justices who wrote the decision as well as Justice Harlan who presciently dissented. All the events are couched in the context of their times and the analysis is consistently thought-provoking.

    The Plessy decision — broadly accepted, even embraced, at the time and for decades thereafter — is today on the sad list of the many ways the nation has found to shame itself. To the question of whether we are as good as we think we are, the Plessy case and its invidious legacy tell us we are not. It is a precious lesson if we intend to improve, not only from the time of the case, but also from here on.

    The Hoffer book is not a sermon. It is good history, touched by a bit of irony that such a bad case shares its name with such a fine book.

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