Some Rhetoric From Plessy v. Ferguson

When I’m teaching the background to the Harlem Renaissance, I usually mention Plessy v. Ferguson and glibly refer to the concept of “separate but equal” public accommodations. Recently I decided to dip back into the text of the Supreme Court’s ruling, however, and here is one piece of it (interrupted by my brief notes):

“The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which has been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of States where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.”

[Note that “in the nature of things” is a phrase through which to drive any assertion one subsequently wants to make, for “in the nature of things” doesn’t mean anything. Note also the convenient but explained distinction between “social” and “political” equality.]

“One of the earliest of these cases is that of Roberts v. City of Boston, 5 Cush. 19, in which the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the general school committee of Boston had power to make provision for the instruction of colored children in separate schools established exclusively for them, and to prohibit their attendance upon the other schools. “The great principle,” said Chief Justice Shaw, p. 206, “advanced by the learned and eloquent advocate for the plaintiff” (Mr. Charles Sumner), “is that, by the constitution and laws of Massachusetts, all persons without distinction of age or sex, birth or color, origin or condition, are equal before the law. . . . But when this great principle comes to be applied to the actual and various conditions of persons in society, it will not warrant the assertion that men and women are legally clothed with the same civil and political powers, and that children and adults are legally to have the same functions and be subject to the same treatment,but only that the rights of all, as they are settled and regulated by law, are equally entitled to the paternal consideration and protection of the law for their maintenance and security.”

[Note that everyone is, according to “this great principle,” equal before the law, except when that principle “comes to be applied to the actual and various persons in society.” The great principle is great until someone wants to apply it to specific cases, then. It’s the great inapplicable principle. Note also that Sumner draws analogies (implicitly) between women and African Americans and between children and African Americans. Note also the irony of the Court’s justifying a Jim Crow law in Louisiana with a law in Boston.]

Here is a link to the text of the whole decision.


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