How did the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson interpret the Fourteenth Amendment? How did it impact the lives of blacks?

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The ruling of Plessy v Ferguson was felt in America for nearly a hundred years after the decision was handed down. After the Civil War ended, blacks all over the nation reached toward the freedoms guaranteed to them by the laws of the land. Imagine the horror that began to...

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The ruling of Plessy v Ferguson was felt in America for nearly a hundred years after the decision was handed down. After the Civil War ended, blacks all over the nation reached toward the freedoms guaranteed to them by the laws of the land. Imagine the horror that began to settle into those communities as blacks watched their Constitutional rights (such as those in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) slipping away. Eventually, blacks in New Orleans decided to take a stand against this erosion of civil liberties and mounted a legal case against laws aimed to segregate races on railway cars.

The Supreme Court decided that the 14th Amendment did not extend to social rights, and a precedent of "separate but equal" facilities took root as the expectation of the country. This was a farce as facilities made available for blacks were never "equal" to the same facilities for their white counterparts.

This had an especially damaging effect on the educational opportunities offered to blacks for many years. Black schools were often in poor condition, there was often no heating or air, and their textbooks were most often those discarded by white schools after years of use. It's not difficult to imagine how a ten-year-old science textbook doesn't provide an "equal" education, but this became the unfortunate educational norm.

Finally in 1954, a decision was reached in Brown v Board of Education that reversed the separate-but-equal approach to educating American students, and that was a definite legal step in the right direction. Unfortunantely, this decision provided no timeline for schools to fully integrate. Thus, there were still segregated schools in America for many more years. Schools in the South were commonly segregated in the 1970s, and as late as 2016, a school district in Mississippi was ordered to integrate its public schools.

The implications of Plessy v Ferguson cut deep segregational divides into America which are still felt today.

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Plessy v. Ferguson was a huge setback to black rights. For many years, this 1896 decision enshrined the notion of "separate but equal" rights for blacks and whites.

The case arrived at the Supreme Court when blacks and other people of color in New Orleans challenged a Louisiana law stating that whites and non-whites had to sit in different carriages when traveling by train. Plessy—who was only one-eighth black but still considered Negro—challenged the new law. He lost. The Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that blacks and whites could be segregated and still equal as long as their segregated facilities were equal.

The result of this decision was the continued segregation of whites and blacks, as well as the establishment of a legal precedent for preserving second-class citizenship for blacks. Blacks were almost never offered facilities of equal quality. They were forced to sit in the back of buses, go to different and inadequate schools, use different bathrooms, and drink at different water fountains. All of this reinforced the notion of black inferiority and made it very difficult for blacks to participate in the American dream of prosperity and equality.

Not until Brown v. Board of Education did the Supreme Court reverse the legality of racial segregation.

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In Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment very strictly.  The 14th Amendment says, among other things, that no state may

deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In Plessy the Supreme Court showed that it believed that there was very little a state could do that would actually constitute a denial of equal protection.

In this case, the Court said that it was perfectly acceptable to have laws that segregated blacks and whites.  It said that a Louisiana law that required blacks and whites to sit in separate cars did not “destroy” the legal equality of the two races.  Instead, it simply recognized the fact that the two races were not, and never could be, socially equal.  It is hard to imagine what sort of laws would have violated the 14th Amendment under this interpretation. 

This interpretation of the amendment hurt African Americans in at least two very important ways.  First, it reinforced racism by putting a government stamp of approval on the idea that blacks were inferior to whites.  It allowed states to segregate blacks in all sorts of insulting and humiliating ways.  We continue to struggle today with the legacy of racism, racism which was strengthened by Plessy.  Second, it helped to create conditions that hurt African Americans in more tangible ways.  For example, Plessy made it clear that segregated schools were acceptable.  While it said that accommodations had to be equal, no effort was made to actually ensure that black and white schools were equal.  This meant that, for generations, African American children had to attend inferior segregated schools.  This made it so that blacks were much less educated than whites.  This seriously reduced the life chances of African Americans as a group.

In these ways, the very strict interpretation of the 14th Amendment, as seen in Plessy, did much to harm African Americans in the ensuing decades.

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