History: June 7, 1892: When is it OK to Break the Law? (Plessy vs. Ferguson)

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A Brief History

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, an African-American, was arrested for refusing to vacate his seat in a “Whites Only” railroad car.  His case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, where a 7-1 majority ruled against Plessy, and upheld segregation laws in states that had them, as long as the “separate but equal” rule was followed. (Ferguson was the lower court judge that ruled against Plessy.)

Digging Deeper

This concept of separate but equal was thus the law of the land until the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, and much of the United States was officially segregated on racial terms. Louisiana had passed a law in 1890 creating racially segregated rail cars.

The members of the U.S. Supreme Court that on May 17, 1954, ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

Not surprisingly, one of the justices on the Supreme Court that ruled against Plessy was Edward White (No kidding! How apropos!) who happened to be a member of a paramilitary white supremacist organization! (How this guy was not dismissed from the case is beyond ridiculous.)

We have referred to Mr. Plessy as African-American, but in reality he was only 1/8 African descent, the other 7/8 being white European, making him what they called back in the day, an “octoroon.” In those days, in Louisiana and many other Southern states an octoroon was considered “black” for legal purposes. (So, does that make me an “octoKraut?”)

Bronze plaque on the side of the Plessy tomb in New Orleans, Louisiana

Was Homer Plessy right to challenge the segregation law by disobeying it?  Mohandas K. Gandhi and African-American civil rights pioneers have also used this technique to challenge laws that seemed manifestly unjust, when normal ballot box recourse seemed unrealistic.  Please share with us your thoughts on what laws should be challenged this way, and conversely which ones should not.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hoffer, WilliamJames Hull.  Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (Landmark Law Cases and American Society).  University Press of Kansas, 2012.

Medley, Keith.  We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson.  Pelican Publishing, 2012.

Thomas, Brook.  Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents.  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.