May 18, 1896: Plessy V. Ferguson, Separate but Equal

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Restricted from ruling that Blacks are neither people nor citizens, the Supreme Court ruled that separating people on the basis of race was Constitutional, so long as the facilities were equal. According to the Court, "When the government has secured to each of its citizens equal rights before the law and equal opportunities for improvement and progress, it has accomplished the end for which it is organized and performed all of the functions respecting social advantages with which it is endowed." Plessy v. Ferguson, (1896), was the landmark US Supreme Court case that legalized discrimination against African-Americans and gave credence to the "separate but equal" doctrine. Plessy, and the Jim Crow laws that flourished in the South due to the Supreme Court legitimizing segregation, were not formally discredited until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, (1954). Even then, the federal government did little to dismantle segregation and other discriminatory laws until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The battle for equal treatment under the law has been long, and is still ongoing. In order to understand the case better, it is helpful to consider it in terms of the historical and social context of the times. Reconstruction

Following the defeat of the Confederate Army and emancipation of the slaves at the end of the Civil War, the United States government left Union troops encamped in the South to assist with the transition from slavery to freedom. The states ratified the 13th (1865), 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments during this era, which, together with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (which overturned southern "Black Codes), ended slavery, extended equal rights and protections to African-Americans, and granted African-American males the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 elaborated on the 1866 Act by providing that "all persons, regardless of race, color or previous condition, [was] entitled to full and equal employment of accommodation in inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement." The Southern states were reluctant to obey these new mandates, so the federal government maintained a military presence in the region from 1865 until approximately 1879. Political End to Reconstruction

The Presidential election of 1876 was a close race, but the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, won the popular election by more than 200,000 votes. Unfortunately for Tilden, he received only 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed to assume the Presidency. While Republican Candidate Rutherford B. Hayes held only 165 electoral votes, 20 votes were still in dispute. With the exception of a single vote from Oregon, the majority of the undecided ballots were from the secessionist states of South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, which were governed by Reconstructionist Republicans (Hayes' party). These states returned two sets of electoral ballots - one favoring Tilden, and one favoring Hayes, so there was no clear winner. Lacking Constitutional guidance for resolving a tied election, Congress decided to create an impartial Electoral Commission to make the decision. The Commission was intended to be ideologically balanced with five members of the House, five members of the Senate, and five members of the Supreme Court, comprising seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one Independent. The Independent, Supreme Court Justices David Davis decided he didn't want the pressure of being the swing vote, so, when his home state of Illinois offered him a Senate position, he accepted and resigned from the Committee. With no Independents remaining on the Supreme Court, Justice Davis was replaced by Justice Joseph Bradley, a Republican. This resulted in a Committee of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, all of whom voted down party lines, awarding the 20 disputed electoral ballots and the Presidency to Hayes. (This lead Democrats to refer to the new President as Rutherfraud B. Hayes,...
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