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Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.
Note: A portion of Article IV, section 2, of the Constitution was superseded by the 13th amendment.
Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have
been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868.
Note: Article I, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of the 14th amendment.
Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of
the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any
person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its
jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 2.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers,
counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to
vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States,
Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the
Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,*
and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other
crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such
male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Section 3.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or
hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously
taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State
legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United
States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the
enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Section 4.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for
payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be
questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation
incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or
emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
Section 5.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
*Changed by section 1 of the 26th amendment.
Plessy versus Ferguson
Historical Background
In the aftermath of Reconstruction, which ended in 1877, the Southern State governments again
became—as they remained in the North—“white man's governments.” The new State
legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws to legally segregate the races and impose second-class
citizenship upon African Americans. Enforced by criminal penalties, these laws created separate
schools, parks, waiting rooms, and other segregated public accommodations. In its ruling in
the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Court made clear that the Equal Protection Clause of the
14th Amendment provided no guarantee against private segregation. It would now be asked to
rule on what protection the 14th Amendment offered in matters of public segregation.
In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed a law requiring railroads to separate passengers on
the basis of race. Trains that had two or more passenger cars were required to have designated
seating for different races. If there was only one passenger car in a train, these cars were to be
divided by a curtain or some other form of partition. A State fine of $25 or up to 20 days in jail
was the penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment.
Timidity in the protection of individual rights—as reflected in the Civil Rights Cases decision—
was a dominant characteristic of the late 19th-century Court. Attacks on its authority after the
infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 still plagued the bench and reinforced its regressive
Circumstances of the Case
Homer Adolph Plessy was a successful Louisiana businessman living in Baton Rouge.
Comfortable in the society of both racial groups, Plessy had had one African-American
grandparent. Although he did not consider himself African American, Louisiana law defined him
as “octaroon”—one-eighth African American.
Plessy, acting on behalf of a committee that had been formed to challenge Jim Crow laws,
intentionally broke the law in order to initiate a case. Returning by rail from New Orleans to
Baton Rouge, Plessy was asked by railroad officials to sit in the segregated area of the train. He
refused. Arrested and charged, Plessy petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court for a writ against
Ferguson, the trial court judge, to stop the proceedings against him for criminal violation of the
State law. But the Louisiana State Supreme Court refused. Convicted and fined, Plessy then
appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Constitutional Issues
The arguments in the case revolved around the 13th Amendment and the Equal Protection
Clause of the 14th Amendment. Did the Louisiana law requiring segregated seating violate
Plessy's “equal protection” under the law? Was a State law requiring separate accommodations
on a public conveyance for whites and African Americans a violation of equal protection?
Should the State law be ruled unconstitutional and Plessy's conviction overturned? Or would
“separate but equal” facilities meet the standard of the 14th Amendment?
For Plessy: Segregated facilities violate the Equal Protection Clause. As a fully participating
citizen, Plessy should not have been denied any rights of citizenship. He should not have been
required to give up any public right or access. The Louisiana law violated the Equal Protection
Clause and was, therefore, unconstitutional.
For the State of Louisiana: It is the right of each State to make rules to protect public safety.
Segregated facilities reflected the public will in Louisiana. A separate but equal facility provided
the protections required by the 14th Amendment and satisfied the demands of white citizens as
well. If the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 made clear that segregation in private matters is of no
concern to government, why should a State legislature be prohibited from enacting public
segregation statutes?
Decision and Rationale
Justice Henry B. Brown of Michigan delivered the 7-1 decision of the Court that upheld the
Louisiana law requiring segregation. Brown noted that the law did not violate either the 13th or
14th Amendments. He stated that the 13th Amendment applied only to slavery, and the 14th
amendment was not intended to give African Americans social equality but only political and
civil equality with white people.
Using a line of reasoning that would echo across the next 60 years of political debate and Court
opinion, Brown wrote that “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish
distinctions based upon physical differences….” In other words, legislation cannot change public
attitudes, “and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present
situation,” Brown wrote. Reflecting the common bias of the majority of the country at the time,
Brown argued that “If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior
to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the
United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” The Court declared the Louisiana law a
reasonable exercise of the State's “police power,” enacted for the promotion of the public good.
In the key passage of the opinion, the Court stated that segregation was legal and constitutional
as long as “facilities were equal.” Thus the “separate but equal doctrine” that would keep
America divided along racial lines for over half a century longer came into being.
Somewhat ironically, while Brown, a Northerner, justified the segregation of the races, Justice
John Marshall Harlan, a Southerner from Kentucky, made a lone, resounding, and prophetic
dissent. “The Thirteenth Amendment…struck down the institution of slavery [and]…decreed
universal civil freedom,” Harlan declared. “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor
tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan's dissent became the main theme of the unanimous
decision of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
No great national protest followed in the wake of the Plessy decision. Segregation was an issue
shunted off to the corner of our national life, and would remain so for nearly 60 years.
Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
In 1896, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Henry
Brown of Michigan delivered the majority opinion, which sustained the constitutionality of
Louisiana’s Jim Crow law. In part, he said:
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption
that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of
inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because
the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it… The argument also assumes
that social prejudice may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be
secured except by an enforced commingling of the two races… If the civil and political
rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one
race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them
upon the same plane.”
In a powerful dissent, conservation Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan wrote:
“I am of the opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberties
of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and the letter of the
Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several
States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery as an
institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there
would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the blessings
of freedom; to regulate civil rights common to all citizens, upon the basis of race; and to
place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting
a part of the political community, called the people of the United States, for whom an by
whom, through representatives, our government is administrated. Such a system is
inconsistent with the guarantee given by the Consititution to each State of a republican
form of government, and may be stricken down by congressional action, or by the courts
in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in
the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The Road to Brown
(Note: Some of the case information is from Patterson, James T. Brown v. Board
of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. Oxford
University Press; New York, 2001.)
Early Cases
Despite the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy and similar cases, many people
continued to press for the abolition of Jim Crow and other racially discriminatory
laws. One particular organization that fought for racial equality was the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909. For
about the first 20 years of its existence, it tried to persuade Congress and other
legislative bodies to enact laws that would protect African Americans from
lynchings and other racist actions. Beginning in the 1930s, though, the NAACP's
Legal Defense and Education Fund began to turn to the courts to try to make progress
in overcoming legally sanctioned discrimination. From 1935 to 1938, the legal arm
of the NAACP was headed by Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston, together with
Thurgood Marshall, devised a strategy to attack Jim Crow laws by striking at them
where they were perhaps weakest—in the field of education. Although Marshall
played a crucial role in all of the cases listed below, Houston was the head of the
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund while Murray v.
Maryland and Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada were decided. After Houston
returned to private practice in 1938, Marshall became head of the Fund and used it
to argue the cases of Sweat v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents
of Higher Education.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955)
The case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education was actually the
name given to five separate cases that were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court
concerning the issue of segregation in public schools. These cases were Brown v.
Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of
Prince Edward County (VA.), Boiling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel. While the
facts of each case are different, the main issue in each was the constitutionality of
state-sponsored segregation in public schools. Once again, Thurgood Marshall and
the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund handled these cases.
Although it acknowledged some of the plaintiffs’/plaintiffs claims, a three-judge
panel at the U.S. District Court that heard the cases ruled in favor of the school
boards. The plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the cases came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court consolidated all
five cases under the name of Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall personally
argued the case before the Court. Although he raised a variety of legal issues on
appeal, the most common one was that separate school systems for blacks and whites
were inherently unequal, and thus violate the "equal protection clause" of the
Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, relying on
sociological tests, such as the one performed by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and
other data, he also argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make
black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be
legally permissible.
Meeting to decide the case, the Justices of the Supreme Court realized that they were
deeply divided over the issues raised. While most wanted to reverse Plessy and
declare segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, they had various reasons
for doing so. Unable to come to a solution by June 1953 (the end of the Court's 19521953 term), the Court decided to rehear the case in December 1953. During the
intervening months, however, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by
Gov. Earl Warren of California. After the case was reheard in 1953, Chief Justice
Warren was able to do something that his predecessor had not—i.e. bring all of the
Justices to agree to support a unanimous decision declaring segregation in public
schools unconstitutional. On May 14, 1954, he delivered the opinion of the Court,
stating that "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of
‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently
unequal. . ."
Expecting opposition to its ruling, especially in the southern states, the Supreme
Court did not immediately try to give direction for the implementation of its ruling.
Rather, it asked the attorney generals of all states with laws permitting segregation
in their public schools to submit plans for how to proceed with desegregation. After
still more hearings before the Court concerning the matter of desegregation, on May
31, 1955, the Justices handed down a plan for how it was to proceed; desegregation
was to proceed with "all deliberate speed." Although it would be many years before
all segregated school systems were to be desegregated, Brown and Brown II (as the
Courts plan for how to desegregate schools came to be called) were responsible for
getting the process underway.
"History of Brown v. Board of Education." USCOURTSGOV RSS. Administrative Office of the US Courts, n.d.
Web. 13 Sept. 2014.
A Brief History of Jim Crow
“I can ride in first-class cars on the railroads and in the streets,” wrote journalist T.
McCants Stewart. “I can stop in and drink a glass of soda and be more politely
waited upon than in some parts of New England.” Perhaps Stewart’s comments
don’t seem newsworthy. Consider that he was reporting from South Carolina in
1885 and he was black.
Stewart had decided to tour the South because he feared for freedmen’s liberties.
In 1868, with Amendment XIV, the Constitution had finally given black men full
citizenship and promised them equal protection under the law. Blacks voted, won
elected office, and served on juries. However, 10 years later, federal troops
withdrew from the South, returning it to local white rule. And now, the Republican
Party, champion of Reconstruction and freedmen’s rights, had fallen from national
power. Would black people’s rights survive?
After a few weeks on the road, Stewart decided they would. True, terrorism against
blacks — lynching, rape, arson — ran unchecked. True, many rural blacks lived
under a sharecropping system little better than slavery. But Stewart noted many
signs of change. He saw a black policeman arrest a white criminal. He saw whites
casually talk with black strangers. “The morning light is breaking,” he told his
Stewart was wrong. Over the next 20 years, blacks would lose almost all they had
gained. Worse, denial of their rights and freedoms would be made legal by a series
of racist statutes, the Jim Crow laws.
“Jim Crow” was a derisive slang term for a black man. It came to mean my law that
established different rules for blacks and whites. First passed in the North long
before the Civil War, such laws were based on the theory of white supremacy. In
the depression-racked 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their
jobs to blacks. Politicians abused blacks to win the votes of poor white “crackers.”
Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up (sometimes even making
up) black crimes.
"A Brief History of Jim Crow." - Constitutional Rights Foundation. Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d.
Web. 14 Sept. 2014.