HISTORICALLY YOURS Justice Harlan – “Our Constitution is Color Blind”



The 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, adopted shortly after the Civil War, provided for the end of slavery, and “the equal protection of the laws.” In the 1890’s, southern lawmakers adopted “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation. In 1892, the Supreme Court took on the legal challenge with the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In reliance on the 13th and 14th Amendments, Plessy chose to be arrested so that he could challenge the Louisiana state law requiring that “no person or persons shall be permitted to occupy a seat in a railway coach, other than the ones assigned to them on account of the race they belonged to”. The railroads were required to provide “separate but equal” facilities for different races. Plessy, a black man, was arrested and imprisoned (soon released) for sitting in a seat assigned to the white race. Ironically, according to author-historian Peter Irons (A People’s History of the Supreme Court), “most Louisiana railroads did not support the Jim Crow law, which cost them money for separate cars. Officials of two railroads told Plessy’s attorney, ‘The law was a bad and mean one; they would like us to get rid of it.”

In a 7-1 decision (one Justice was excused), the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy. The decision sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine in which southern state segregation ordinances were enforced. According to Irons, Justice Henry B. Brown wrote for the majority; “his only major opinion in 15 years on the Court was certainly his worst. He based his decision on thinlyveiled racism, dressed in polite language.” Brown concluded, “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan answered Brown “with a devastating rebuttal.” He stated that the 14th Amendment “was designed to prohibit states from discriminating against blacks in their enjoyment of the civil rights that all citizens held.” Harlan then “put this point into a sentence that has become famous, perhaps the most quoted in Supreme Court history; “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

In the 1954 landmark case of Brown v. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy decision, because, as stated by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ‘Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprive the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does….”

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