Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

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Segregated America
  • Promise of Freedom
  • White Only
  • Separate but Equal
  • The Supreme Court
The Battleground
Legal Campaign
Five Communities Change a Nation
The Decision

Separate but Equal: The Law of the Land


African Americans turned to the courts to help protect their constitutional rights. But the courts challenged earlier civil rights legislation and handed down a series of decisions that permitted states to segregate people of color.

In the pivotal case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the Constitution. Segregation, the Court said, was not discrimination.

The 1896-97 Supreme Court

The 1896-97 Supreme Court

The members of the United States Supreme Court, 1896-97. Under Chief Justice Melville Fuller, the Court established the separate-but-equal rule. Courtesy of Supreme Court of the United States
Title page of Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1890 a new Louisiana law required railroads to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races.” Outraged, the black community in New Orleans decided to test the rule.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy agreed to be arrested for refusing to move from a seat reserved for whites. Judge John H. Ferguson upheld the law, and the case of Plessy v. Ferguson slowly moved up to the Supreme Court. On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, with only one dissenting vote, ruled that segregation in America was constitutional.
(Courtesy of National Archives, Washington, D.C.)

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