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Dred Scott vs.
Dred Scott was a slave in the United States who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in
the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. His case was based on the fact that
he and his wife Harriet had been slaves, but had lived in states where slavery was illegal.
The United States Supreme Court ruled seven to two against Scott, finding that people
of African descent who had once been slaves, and even their descendants who had never
been slaves, were not legal persons and could never claim citizenship in the United
This meant that Scott did not have the right to bring suit in federal court. The Supreme
Court judged that Scott's temporary residence in states where slavery was illegal did
not mean that he should be freed from slavery in all states, since reaching that result
would deprive Scott's owner (who was in a slave-owning state) of his property.
Essentially, the Supreme Court had ruled that slaves, as chattel (property) could not be
taken away from their owners.
Plessy vs.
On June 7 1892 Homer Plessy boarded a car of the East Louisiana Railroad that was for
use by Whites only. Although Plessy was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, under
Louisiana state law he was classified as an African-American, and was therefore
required to sit in the "colored" car. When Plessy refused to leave the white car he was
arrested and jailed.
In his case Plessy argued that the East Louisiana Railroad had denied him his rights
under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
However, the judge presiding over his case, Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right
to regulate railroad companies as long as they operated within state boundaries.
Plessy then took his case to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, who upheld Judge
Ferguson's ruling. Undaunted, Plessy appealed to the United States Supreme Court in
1896. It would become one of the most famous decisions in American history.
In a 7 to 1 decision the Court rejected Plessy's arguments based on the Fourteenth
Amendment, seeing no way in which the Louisiana statute violated it. In addition, the
majority of the Court rejected the view that the Louisiana law implied any inferiority of
Blacks. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public
When summarizing, Justice Brown declared that segregation of the races did not imply
inferiority of Blacks. While the Court did not find a difference in quality between the
whites-only and blacks-only railway cars, this was of course clearly untrue in the case of
most other separate facilities, such as public toilets and cafés, where the facilities
designated for blacks were poorer than those designated for whites. Justice Harlan, an
ex-slave owner who became a champion for Black civil rights after witnessing terrible
KKK behaviour, scathingly argued that the court’s decision would be infamous. He
pointed out that the US Constitution should be colour blind and all citizens should be
equal before the law.
The case helped create the doctrine of “separate but equal”, the idea that segregation
based on classifications was legal as long as facilities were of equal quality. However,
Southern state governments refused to provide Blacks with genuinely equal facilities and
resources in the years after the Plessy decision. The states not only separated races
but, in actuality, ensured differences in quality. In January 1896, Homer Plessy pled
guilty to the violation and paid the fine.
Brown vs.
Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme
Court, which overturned earlier rulings going back to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. It
declared that state laws which established separate schools for Black and White
students denied Black children equal educational opportunities. As a result, de jure racial
segregation was ruled a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States
Constitution. This victory paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.
For much of the ninety years preceding the Brown case, race relations in the U.S. had
been dominated by racial segregation. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the
United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the
separate facilities for the separate races were "equal," segregation did not violate the
Fourteenth Amendment ("no State shall deny to any person the equal protection of the
In 1951 thirteen Topeka (in Kansas) parents filed a class action suit on behalf of their
children against the Board of Education. These plaintiffs in the Brown case argued that
the “separate but equal” policy did not result in equal treatment for Blacks because the
education their children were receiving was clearly inferior to that of White children in
The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, and the other parents argued before the District
Court that black school were not equal to white schools. For example, the State of
Mississippi spent $98.15 p.a. on each white pupil, but only $43.14 p.a. on each black pupil.
The District Court did not find in the parents’ favour, so they took the case to the
Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court found that the segregation of children in public schools was
damaging, and African American children were being made to feel inferior. The doctrine
of “separate but equal” was therefore defeated and it was a victory for the civil rights
The decision was known throughout the country within hours and the reaction in the
South was bitter. Many States in the South refused to desegregate their schools, and
even as late as 1964 91% of black children across seventeen Southern states still
attended segregated schools. Despite this, the victory had shown the NAACP that the
Supreme Court could overturn prejudiced decisions made in the District Courts and that
it was possible to achieve civil rights through the peaceful mechanism of the law courts.