A Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of
A new generation of blacks were less ready to defer to white power. Clashes arose between blacks who believed that the Constitution guaranteed them equal rights as citizens. In September 1891 an organization called Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, formed to fight segregation and the Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act of 1890. The act mandated that that all whites ride in different but equally appointed cars on all trains,” requiring all railway companies carrying passengers on their trains, in this State, to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing separate coaches or compartments so as to secure separate accommodations; defining the duties of the officers of such railways; directing them to assign passengers to the coaches or compartment set aside for the use of the race to which such passengers belong…” The Citizens Committee considered organizing a boycott of all railroads within the state.
They ultimately decided to test the segregation law in court. The Committee found an attorney who was an advocate of black right called Albion Tourgee from New York, who provided free counsel. A white lawyer, James C. Walker agreed to challenge the Separate Car Act in court. The question they wanted to put to the court was ” Is Louisiana’s law mandating racial segregation on its trains, an unconstitutional infringement on both the privileges and immunities and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?” The Citizens Committee organised that Daniel Desdunes a light skinned, black man would board a white only car on February 24 1892. Desdunes had purchased a first class ticket for a destination outside of the state. He was informed during the journey by a conductor that he would need to sit in a black car but he refused to move.
The train was stopped and he was arrested because he violated the Separate Car Act. The Desdunes case was never tried in court because a similar case appeared before a Louisiana State Court at that time. The court ruled that the federal government, not the state regulated interstate commerce. Therefore the Separate Car Act did not apply to trains crossing state lines and the charges were dismissed. It was a small step forward for the Citizens Committee and blacks, ensuring that separate but equal would not apply to seating on interstate trains.
A few weeks later the Citizens Committee organized Homer Plessy, a shoemaker to board a train on June 7th in New Orleans. Plessy, an octoroon was light skinned and sat in an area for whites only. His ticket was purchased for a journey within the state of Louisiana, he was willing to allow himself to be arrested and partake in a long series of trials in court. Plessy sat in a railroad car reserved for whites was asked to move to a black car by a conductor which he refused. He was arrested for violating the state law of Louisiana which restricted his race to traveling in a colored car. Plessy’s case went to the state criminal district court. On Oct 14, 1883 James C.
Walker filed a fourteen-point brief he stated,”that the law in question clashed with the United States Constitution…he pointed to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from denying privileges to any citizen of the United States.” Walker summed up his case to Judge Ferguson stating that Louisiana law was illegal because it established that a citizen could be discriminated against because of race:Distinction and discrimination between Citizens of the United States based on race which is obnoxious to the fundamental principles of National Citizenship Of National Citizenship, perpetuates involuntary servitude as regards Citizens of Colored race under the merest pretense of promoting the comfort of passengers on railway trains, and in further respect abridges the privileges and immunities of Citizens of the United States and the rights secured by the XIIIth and XIV th amendments to the Federal Constitution. Walker and Tourgee linked their argument to the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment which prevents states from infringing upon the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.
” This meant that basic rights of citizens were federally protected against state actions. They were stating to the court that state law’s concern for the comfort of passengers was not a valid reason to deprive black people of their rights. District Attorney Lionel Adams represented the state of Louisiana.
His argument to the court was that the state clearly wanted to avoid hostility between black and white passengers on its trains. He stated that Louisiana had the right to maintain the Separate Car Law because of the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution which established specific state rights, ” reserves powers not delegated to the states…
or to the people,” meaning it delegated powers to the federal government. . He stated that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments granted political rights, such as voting but did not dictate social rights.
He also argued that under the Fourteenth Amendment, the segregated railway law made it equally illegal for whites to sit in the colored car, therefore whites would be subject to the same penalties as blacks, if they sat in a black car. The law called for separate but equal. Adams emphasized previous court decisions, where federal judges had found nothing wrong with segregation in public transportation. He cited an 1885 Tennessee case where the judge ruled, ” equal accommodation do not mean identical accommodations.” He also argued that the Separate Car Law was reasonable because he claimed that white passengers had a right to be separated from the “foul odors” given off by blacks. On November 18th Judge Ferguson complimented Plessy’s attorneys on their briefs and said they showed great research.
Ferguson then accepted the prosecution’s arguments and the charges against Homer Plessy would stand. Plessy’s trail would move forward. Author David Cates wrote, “Judge Ferguson based his ruling on the majority of previous cases which supported Adams arguments, that the state had a right to keep peace by separating the races on railway cars.” Walker and Tourgee immediately appealed Judge Ferguson’s decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Tourgee joined Walker in person to argue in front of the high court. The case became known as Ex Parte Plessy. Tourgee used three premises to argue the unconstitutionally of the Separate Car Act.
Tourgee first premise argued that the Separate Car Law was vague, and a deceptive piece of legislation. He stated that the law referred to persons of colored race but provided no criteria for what determining what constituted the colored race. Tourgee’s second premise said that the law gave judicial power to train conductors in determining the race of a passenger. Both lawyers provided to the court 16 different legal definitions of Negro or mulatto. Their third premise was that the law was in violation of the the Fourteenth Amendment, which promised equal protection under the law regardless of race.
The Tourgee-Walker brief asserted, “the clear contention that the men who created the Separate Car Law had done so to legalize a discrimination between classes of citizens based on color.” (Tim Mc Neese 97). Lionel Adams arguing for the state said there was nothing unconstitutional with the Separate Car Act He claimed it was up to the state to decide what happened on state railways.
He reiterated his point that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments guaranteed political rights not social rights, and that the law put restrictions on both blacks and whites, since the penalty for both races sitting in an undesignated car was equal. On December 19, 1892 The Louisiana Supreme Court announced its decision. The verdict was unanimously against Plessy. Justice Charles E.
Fenner gave the court’s opinion. The court reduced Tourgee’s argument to one question, ” Could state law apply in the light of the Fourteenth Amendment? ” ( cite )He ruled out the arguments about the Thirteenth Amendments because it extended to the subject of slavery. Fenner cited 16 state and lower federal court decision that resulted in regulations enforcing the separation of races as long as the “facilities or accommodations provided are substantially equal.
” ( cite) Fenner found the Separate Car Act valid, because segregation on public transport was ” in the interest of public order, peace, and comfort…the law applied to both races equally, since the penalties for both blacks and whites were the same.
” ( cite) The Separate Car Act would stand in Louisiana and Plessy was still guilty of breaking that law.How did case get to the Supreme Court? The Citizens Committee had always wanted to test the constitutionality of the Separate Car Act in the highest court of the United States, they believed a win in the Supreme Court could make Jim Crow laws illegal throughout the country, thus improving the conditions for blacks throughout the United States. The judicial rule at the times was if a plaintiff received negative judgement from the state courts involving law on constitutional grounds, the plaintiff could make a direct appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
The Louisiana Supreme Court granted a ” writ of error” a shortcut that the Plessy case took under a new legal title Plessy v. Ferguson. It took four years for the case to be heard in the Supreme Court.Events taking place across the United States in 1893 revealed a dark tone for blacks regarding advancements of civil rights and security. “Lynching were takin