Plessy vs Ferguson

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The Case of Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1877, the U.S. President took the federal troops from the former Confederation, and it marked the inglorious end of Reconstruction. The white Southerners were jubilant, congratulating each other on the victory. They managed to liberate their native land, snatching it from the “oppressive grip of the central government.” As for African Americans, they were the pawns in a land where little has changed. The white southerners managed to legislate and fix the division of society along the racial lines. Needless to say, they themselves occupied a dominant position in this society. (Brook, 65)

The Case of Plessy v. Ferguson

For African Americans, this decision turned out to be a collapse of all hopes. The wonderful door leading into the political life of the South, half-opened for a moment, and again slammed shut. Very soon the majority of black men lost their voting rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. Those who tried to exercise their political rights met new insurmountable obstacles in the form of a poll tax, literacy tests, and outright intimidation by white racists.

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The results were not long in coming: very soon the number of blacks in the government of the South fell catastrophically. At the same time, separation from political power, even more, exacerbated the plight of former slaves. The sharecropping system created a semblance of economic independence. In fact, it in no way solved the problem of black farmers who remained without money, farm equipment, and other necessary items. The practice of “conservation interest” let them keep afloat for a certain time through borrowing money against future harvests from the landowners and merchants. However, endless debt, coupled with the political disenfranchisement did not leave any chances to the southern blacks.

On top of all, they faced new social and legal restrictions. Thanks to Jim Crow laws, the white citizens introduced a system of segregation, creating two isolated worlds – one for themselves and one for black people. Housing, transportation, educational and recreational facilities, even cemeteries were separated. The whites lived in one universe, the black in another.

In 1896, the Supreme Court made a decision on the case of “Plessy v. Ferguson,” which, in fact, legalized the creation of “separate but equal” conditions of existence. This historic decision legislated racial segregation and confirmed its compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

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In 1892, Homer Plessy, a man being 1/8 black, bought a ticket to a train car for the white people. According to the laws of Louisiana, he was arrested. Plessy went to court, considering that the state government had violated the U.S. Constitution, which had to ensure the equality of all the citizens before the law. Homer Plessy sent an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, which ruled that the separation of citizens into black and white did not violate the constitution. (Elliott, 71)

In Plessy v. Ferguson case the U.S. Supreme Court produced the decision, which spoke of the doctrine of the separation, but the equality of citizens, and that has delayed the process of getting equal civil rights by the black U.S. citizens for half a century. This decision gave the legal basis for racial segregation in the United States, forcing the black Americans to study in schools for blacks only and use special public places reserved for them.

In Louisiana, a law was passed which required the railway companies to provide different train cars for black and white passengers. Black leaders believed that this law infringed their rights under the 14th Amendment. They decided to challenge the constitutionality of this law in the court and chose Homer Plessy for this. He bought a train ticket for the car for “whites only”. He was arrested and convicted. Plessy appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was to make a decision, whether the law violated the law on rights protection by the 14th Amendment. According to the Courts decision, the 14th Amendment did not mean racial mixing in society and found that the division into black and white did not mean that one race was superior to another.

However, members of the court were not unanimous in their decision. Court member John Harlan, the white Southerner, wrote a dissenting opinion. He believed that the legislative recognition of racial segregation by the Louisiana law implied that blacks were an inferior race, or “caste”, and this contradicted the 14th Amendment. He wrote: The Constitution does not distinguish color and does not recognize the class division. Based on the rights contained therein, all citizens are equal before the law. The decision is going to be as bad as the judgment in Scotts case. (Plessy v. Ferguson) It was another odious decision in US history. Dredd Scott v. Sanford was a known case considered by the Supreme Court of the United States. Its decision legalized the powerless position of blacks. The court ruled that all blacks brought to America and their descendants were not the citizens of the United States, was not entitled to receive the citizenship, did not have the right to go to court, and could not be taken away from their owner without trial. (Scott v. Sanford)

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This decision strengthened the phenomenon of racial segregation in the USA. Some states have passed laws that set segregation in schools, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, transport, toilets. In the courts, there were two Bibles, one of which was intended to objure by the black.

This decision looked like an outright mockery because everyone understood that the blacks were given a definitely unequal world. Nevertheless, it was just the beginning. Then, the whites applied the brute force and violence, which completed the case started by the law. Only during the 1890s, almost two thousand lynchings of blacks were recorded. Most of these crimes were fulfilled in the South, where Ku Klux Klan was raging and a similar situation prevailed in the 20th century.

How did Americans react to segregation, which was, in fact, a legalized lawlessness? Differently. Some of them were in positions of “gradualism.” For example, Booker T. Washington argued that blacks had to put up for some time with constraints imposed by the white members of society.

What to do, for many years, the principles of racial inequality came in the flesh and blood of the American people. Yes, it is humiliating and unfair, but that is life. And black Americans should not delude themselves with dreams of instant transformation of society. Instead, they should better work hard and honestly in those areas that are open to them. Gradually improving their material well-being, they thereby will prove their role in the prosperity of the nation and confirm the claim to equality. Over time, white people themselves will be forced to abandon their misconceptions.

In the book “Rise up from Slavery” (1901) Washington presented his own experiences as a decent (and affordable) model to follow. His “Tuskegee Institute” in Alabama offered educational programs in agriculture, crafts, and industrial labor. Washington considered these areas of life most suitable for the blacks. (Washington, 128)

The second approach to the problem of segregation was absolutely rebellious. His prophet W. E. B. Dubois strongly urged blacks to resist racist restrictions. In a caste society, created by the white people, blacks position was intolerable, and they had to put an end to this injustice. Dubois did not believe that Negros were able to radically improve their position at the cost of long and hard work.

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Likewise, he denied the value of limited training. All these half-measures will not solve the problems of the African-American population. Dubois insisted that full academic education should be available for black citizens. Only then the most talented blacks – “the talented tenths,” as Dubois called them, would be able to break into the elite of the progressivist movement and lead the fight for reform. (Du Bois, 67)

Having occupied his niche in the political life of the country and using the legislative levers, black professionals will overwhelm the basis of racial discrimination. In his work “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) Dubois challenged Washington’s opportunistic position. In 1909, together with a small group of like-minded white reformers he organized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization aimed to fight for equal rights for black Americans. (Du Bois, 98)

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