Essay by pehar April 2004

download word file, 2 pages 3.0

There has been an ongoing debate among historians over the origins of racial segregation in this country in the decades after emancipation. Every southern state had enacted black codes immediately after the war to keep the former slaves under tight control. After these had been voided by the Union, white southerners began exploring other means to maintain their supremacy over blacks. Southern legislatures enacted criminal statutes that invariably prescribed harsher penalties for blacks than for whites convicted of the same crime, and erected a system of peonage that survived into the early twentieth century.

In an 1878 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not prohibit segregation on common carriers, such as railroads, streetcars or steamboats. Twelve years later, it approved a Mississippi statute requiring segregation on intrastate carriers. In doing so it acquiesced in the South's solution to race relations.

In the best known of the early segregation cases, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Justice Billings Brown asserted that distinctions based on race ran afoul of neither the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments, two of the Civil War amendments passed to abolish slavery and secure the legal rights of the former slaves.

Although nowhere in the opinion can the phrase "separate but equal" be found, the Court's rulings approved legally enforced segregation as long as the law did not make facilities for blacks inferior to those of whites.

The object of the amendment 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. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable...