Equal Protection and Affirmative Action

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Case background and primary documents concerning Plessy v. Ferguson. Dealing with the principle of Equal Protection, this lesson asks students to evaluate the degree to which custom, precedent, and understanding of federalism informed the ruling in the case.

Founding Principles

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Case Background

Although the Declaration of Independence affirmed that “all men are created equal,” and had inalienable rights including liberty, African Americans were systematically denied their liberty with the institution of slavery. Even after the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, segregation was a fact of life in the United States. Throughout the country, the races remained separated by both custom and law.

With the end of Reconstruction, every southern state, as well as some northern ones, passed what came to be termed Jim Crow laws. These policies required segregation in public places. African Americans were denied equal access to public facilities like transportation, education, and the voting booth. In 1878, the Supreme Court held that states could not require integration on interstate common carriers. In 1890, the Court held that Mississippi could require segregation on modes of interstate transportation.

Five years later, Homer Plessy, a resident of Louisiana, decided to challenge a Louisiana law requiring segregation on railcars by purchasing a train ticket and sitting in a “whites only” car. Because Plessy was an “octoroon” (1/8th black), he was subject to the black codes of Louisiana. When he was questioned as to his status, he admitted to being an octoroon, and was arrested when he refused to leave the car. He appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Louisiana and eventually the United States Supreme Court, claiming that the Louisiana law violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Key Question

Evaluate the degree to which each of the following informed the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson: custom, precedent, and understanding of federalism.


Read the Case Background and the Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-M. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-M, as well as your own knowledge of history.


Documents you will examine:

  1. The Declaration of Independence, 1776
  2. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787
  3. The Constitution of the United States, 1789
  4. The Tenth Amendment, 1791
  5. Thomas Jefferson to Henri Gregoire, 1809
  6. Argument of John Quincy Adams, Amistad Case, 1841
  7. “The American Declaration of Independence Illustrated,” 1861
  8. Section of The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868
  9. Civil Rights Cases, 1883
  10. Final Judgment, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
  11. Majority Opinion (6-1), Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
  12. Dissenting Opinion, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
  13. “At the Bus Station,” 1940

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