The Fourteenth Amendment Reconsidered, The Segregation Question

Some sixty years ago in Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court of the United States adopted the now celebrated “separate but equal” doctrine as a constitutional guidepost for state segregation statutes. Justice Brown’s opinion declared that state statutes imposing racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, provided only that the statute in question guaranteed equal facilities for the two races. Brown’s argument rested on a historical theory of the intent, although he offered no evidence to support it. “The object of the amendment,” he said, “was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”