The United States Supreme Court has been an instrumental American institution in the struggle for freedom and civil rights for African Americans. However, social change is often slow, with advances in civil rights moving ahead in small steps rather than large strides. Two landmark Supreme Court decisions that illustrate this process were handed down nearly six decades apart; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954).
Plessy v. Ferguson is generally viewed as legitimizing segregation by affirming the ôseparate but equalö doctrine of race. At issue was the constitutionality of a Louisiana Law that mandated equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored raced on all passenger railways in the state. Homer Plessy was forced, by railway agents and police officials, to give up a purchased seat in a railway car designated for whites only. A majority of seven justices upheld the constitutionality of the law in Plessy v. Ferguson, enacting what Lofgren (1987) calls a ôreasonable police measure to secure orderö (3).
The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was a genuine reflection of prevailing cultural, ethical, and social norms and more which characterized post-Reconstruction and post-Civil War United States political life. According to Swisher (1960), Plessy was handed down in an era in this countryÆs history less than a third of a century after the Civil War, when many people remained ôconvinced that separation of racial groups was a necessity and moral imperativeö (98). Justice Brown delivered the majority court opinion which affirmed the decision of the Louisiana court, state the racial prejudices cannot be overcome by legislation, and affirmed the separate but equal statute as legitimately proceeding from a constitutional interpretation of the 13th and 14th Amendments.
Nearly six decades later, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared segregation of pu...