April 13th, 1896

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which mandated that railroad companies provide separate passenger cars for black and white travelers. The Comite des Citoyens (“Committee of Citizens”), a New Orleans group of free black men who employed civil disobedience to challenge segregation laws, orchestrated Homer A. Plessy’s arrest for boarding a “whites-only” passenger car. Mr. Plessy, a black man with a very light complexion, appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court. On April 13, 1896, the Court heard Plessy's argument that the Louisiana segregation law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery and established equal protection of the laws.

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court released a 7-1 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, holding that state-mandated segregation in intrastate travel was constitutional, as long as the separate accommodations were equal. Justice Henry Brown wrote the majority opinion, which held that the Louisiana law did not violate the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendment because it did not interfere with an individual’s personal freedom or liberties. He claimed the Court could uphold the notion that all people are equal before the law in political and civil rights but could not override social inferiority based upon the distinction of race.

Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, writing that the Louisiana law was in direct violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments' promise of protection of all civil rights related to freedom and citizenship. Justice Harlan specified that the law was a blatant attempt to infringe upon the civil rights of African Americans and that the Court inappropriately yielded to public sentiment at the expense of constitutional safeguards. He predicted the Court’s decision would lead to racial confrontation.

Plessy v. Ferguson legally sanctioned racial segregation by establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine as national law. Public services and accommodations were segregated for decades, until the Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 overruled the application of “separate but equal” in public education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited it in public accommodations.


April 13th, 1947

Civil Rights Activist Bayard Rustin Arrested in North Carolina

On June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court in Morgan v. Virginia declared unconstitutional state laws that segregated interstate passengers on motor carriers. Shortly thereafter, the decision was interpreted to apply to interstate train and bus travel. The executive committee of the Congress of Racial Equality and the racial-industrial committee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation organized a “Journey of Reconciliation” through the Upper South to determine whether train and bus companies were adhering to the Morgan decision. Over a period of two weeks in April 1947, an interracial group of men traveled to fifteen cities in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky to test whether public transportation vehicles were operating without segregation.

On April 13, 1947, Bayard Rustin, a thirty-five-year-old black civil rights activist, boarded a bus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as part of the “Journey of Reconciliation.” Mr. Rustin sat with a white man at the front of the bus and refused to move to the back when asked by the bus driver to do so. Police officers arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct and refusing to obey the bus driver. Three other activists traveling with Mr. Rustin were also arrested. When the men were released on bond, they were threatened with violence, and fled Chapel Hill after a white activist participating in the “Journey of Reconciliation” was assaulted.

Two years later, on March 21, 1949, Mr. Rustin was sentenced to thirty days imprisonment for sitting next to a white man on a bus, and spent over three weeks working on a prison chain gang that was overseen by armed guards.