Separate but Equal

The doctrine of “separate but equal” supported the idea of races being separate, so long as they received “equal” facilities and treatment to that which the whites had or received. For example, separate but equal dictated that blacks and whites use separate water fountains, schools, and even medical care. However, because blacks had, say, their own water fountains, then they were “equal” to whites who used separate water fountains. To explore this concept, consider the following separate but equal definition.

Definition of Separate but Equal


  1. The doctrine which stated that segregating individuals by race did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as the facilities and services provided to each race were equal in nature.



Separate but Equal Doctrine

The separate but equal doctrine came about as the result of a landmark court case, Plessy v. Ferguson. This case is discussed in more detail below. Suffice it to say that the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was not a violation of the Constitution, so long as “equal” facilities and services were available to the individual races. For example, separate but equal refers to the idea that both blacks and whites could eat at restaurants, so long as they used different ones.

13th and 14th Amendments

The 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery, with the exception being the use of slavery as punishment for a crime. The 14th Amendment guarantees all American citizens equal protection under the law. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Plaintiff – Homer Plessy – argued that the separate but equal doctrine violated both of these rights.

Plessy argued that the doctrine was oppressing blacks’ rights under the 13th Amendment by forcing them to comply with white regulations. This essentially made them subservient to white individuals under the law. As for the 14th Amendment, Plessy argued that the laws dictating what individuals could not do based on race denied the very principles the 14th Amendment sought to uphold.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in May of 1896. Around this time, the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act. The Separate Car Act dictated that blacks and whites were to ride in separate cars when they rode the train. In 1892, Homer Plessy challenged the Act after a group of New Orleans residents called the Comité des Citoyens (“Committee of Citizens”) approached him about joining their cause.

Plessy was 1/8 black, but that was enough to declare him legally black under the law. The Committee asked Plessy to sit in a “whites only” car on the train, and he obliged. The railroad company knew in advance of Plessy’s plan, and had a detective arrest Plessy after Plessy refused to vacate the car.

Trial and Appeal

At trial, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the separate but equal doctrine violated their client’s rights under the 13th Amendment and 14th Amendment. The trial judge ruled that the state of Louisiana had the right to regulate its own railroads, and convicted Plessy and ordered him to pay a $25 fine. Plessy then appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.

U.S. Supreme Court

Plessy and the Committee then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case and then had to decide whether the Separate Car Act truly violated individuals’ rights under the 14th Amendment. The Court ultimately ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the state of Louisiana. The Court held that, not only was racial segregation legal, but there was no violation of Plessy’s constitutional rights because there was no significant difference in the railcars’ quality.

Separate But Equal Example Involving a Black College Applicant

Here is yet another example of separate but equal doctrine being debated by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1946, H.M. Sweatt, a black man, worked as a Texas postal worker. He applied to the University of Texas Law School, however, the school denied his application based solely on his race. Sweatt then sued the state of Texas, as there was no law school in the state that would accept African-Americans.

The trial judge held onto the case for six months, to give the state enough time to create a law school specifically for African-Americans. Once the state had established the school, the judge dismissed Sweatt’s case. Sweatt appealed to both the Court of Civil Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court. Both courts affirmed the lower court’s decision, so Sweatt took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Sweatt

At the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers for Sweatt, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, argued that there was no valid reason to support the separation of educational facilities based on race. Further, they argued that the newly created school did not enjoy a status equal to those of the existing law schools within the state. The state argued that the facilities were, in fact, equal, and that the same professors that taught at white schools were willing to teach the black students at the new school.

The Court ultimately sided with Sweatt, and held that the new school was not equal to the existing whites-only schools. The Court ruled that the structure of a college did not make it equal to another college. Depriving individuals of a top-class education provided by prestigious professors in fact made such a separation unequal. This inequality meant that the Court was not considering the constitutionality of Plessy, which had created the separate but equal doctrine.

In the Court’s Own Words

In the Court’s Decision, the justices wrote:

“…although the law is a highly learned profession, we are well aware that it is an intensely practical one. The law school, the proving ground for legal learning and practice, cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts. Few students and no one who has practiced law would choose to study in an academic vacuum, removed from the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views with which the law is concerned.

“The law school to which Texas is willing to admit petitioner excludes from its student body members of the racial groups which number 85% of the population of the State and include most of the lawyers, witnesses, jurors, judges and other officials with whom petitioner will inevitably be dealing when he becomes a member of the Texas Bar. With such a substantial and significant segment of society excluded, we cannot conclude that the education offered petitioner is substantially equal to that which he would receive if admitted to the University of Texas Law School.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.