In 1890 the Louisiana legislature enacted a statute that required railroad companies to provide “for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races.” The races weren’t permitted to sit together. Any passenger who violated the law was subject to a fine or imprisonment. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy boarded a train and sat down in a car designated for whites only. He was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. When asked to change cars he refused, so he was forcefully removed by a police officer, imprisoned, and charged with violating the state law. His case made its way up to the Supreme Court– the issue was whether the Louisiana law was constitutional.
On May 18, 1896, Justice Brown wrote the majority opinion, stating that– “we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable….” Justice Harlan, in a dissenting opinion, came to a more enlightened conclusion. He wrote, “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” It took until 1954 for the Supreme Court to finally overturn the Plessy decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown dealt with the issue of segregation in public schools. The Court wrote, “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”