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For the film about the Brown v. Board of Education trial, see Separate but Equal (film).
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Separate but equal was a legal doctrine in United States constitutional law that justified and permitted racial segregation, as not being in breach of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens, and other federal civil rights laws. Under the doctrine, government was allowed to require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be separated along racial lines, provided that the quality of each group's public facilities was equal. The phrase was derived from a Louisiana law of 1890, although the law actually used the phrase "equal but separate."[1]

The doctrine was confirmed in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation. Though segregation laws existed before that case, the decision emboldened segregation states during the Jim Crow era, which had commenced in 1876 and replaced the Black Codes, which had restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans with no pretense of equality during the Reconstruction Era. 17 states had various institutionalized separation laws.

The doctrine was overturned by a series of Supreme Court decisions starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. However, the overturning of legal separation laws in the United States was a long process that lasted through much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s involving many court cases and federal legislation.


The American Civil War (1861–1865) brought slavery in the United States to an end.[2] Following the war, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens, and Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau to assist the integration of former slaves into Southern society. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, former slave-holding states enacted various laws to undermine the equal treatment of African Americans, although the Fourteenth Amendment as well as federal Civil Rights laws enacted during reconstruction were meant to guarantee it. However Southern states contended that the requirement of equality could be met in a manner that kept the races separate. Furthermore, the state and federal courts tended to reject the pleas by African Americans that their Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to federal, not state, citizenship. This rejection is evident in the Slaughter-House Cases and Civil Rights Cases.

After the end of Reconstruction, the federal government adopted a general policy of leaving racial segregation up to the individual states. One example of this policy was the second Morrill Act (Morrill Act of 1890). Before the end of the war, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act (Morrill Act of 1862) had provided federal funding for higher education by each state with the details left to the state legislatures.[3] The 1890 Act which implicitly accepted the legal concept of separate but equal for the 17 states which had institutionalized segregation.

Provided, That no money shall be paid out under this act to any State or Territory for the support and maintenance of a college where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students, but the establishment and maintenance of such colleges separately for white and colored students shall be held to be a compliance with the provisions of this act if the funds received in such State or Territory be equitably divided as hereinafter set forth.[4][5]

Prior to the Second Morrill Act, 17 states excluded blacks from access to the land grant colleges without providing similar educational opportunities. In response to the Second Morrill Act, 17 states established separate land grant colleges for blacks which are now referred to as public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In fact, some states adopted laws prohibiting schools from educating blacks and whites together, even if a school was willing to do so. (The Constitutionality of such laws was upheld in Berea College v. Kentucky, 211 U.S. 45 (1908).) Under the 'separate but equal doctrine', blacks were entitled to receive the same public services and accommodations such as schools, bathrooms, and water fountains, but states were allowed to maintain different facilities for the two groups. The legitimacy of such laws under the 14th Amendment was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. The Plessy doctrine was extended to the public schools in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899).

A restaurant in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1938.

Although the Constitutional doctrine required equality, the facilities and social services offered to African-Americans were almost always of lower quality than those offered to white Americans; for example, many African American schools received less public funding per student than nearby white schools. In Texas, the state established a state-funded law school for white students without any law school for black students.

Questionable Equality[edit]

In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was of mixed ancestry and appeared to be white, boarded an all-white railroad car between New Orleans and Covington, Louisiana. The conductor of the train collected passenger tickets at their seats. When Plessy told the conductor he was 7/8ths white and 1/8th black, he was advised he needed to move to a coloreds-only car. Plessy said he resented sitting in a coloreds-only car and was arrested immediately.

One month after his arrest, Plessy appeared in court before Judge John Howard Ferguson. Plessy's lawyer, Albion Tourgee, claimed Plessy’s 13th and 14th amendment rights were violated. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, and the 14th amendment granted equal protection to all under the law.

The Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the phrase "separate but equal". The ruling "[required] railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in that State to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and colored races…".[6] Accommodations provided on each railroad car were required to be the same as those provided on the others. Separate railroad cars could be provided. The railroad could refuse service to passengers who refused to comply, and the Supreme Court ruled this did not infringe upon the 13th and 14th amendments.

The "separate but equal" doctrine applied to railroad cars and to schools, voting rights, and drinking fountains. Segregated schools were created for students, as long as they followed "separate but equal". The notion that they were equal though has been controversial.[who?] For example the majority of all black schools received old textbooks, used equipment, and poorly prepared or trained teachers.[7] A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that black students were emotionally impaired when segregated at a young age.[8] Furthermore, many black students were forced to associate with "white dolls" or colors similar, but lighter, than their own skin.[8][clarification needed] State voting right restrictions, such as literacy tests and poll taxes created an environment that made it almost impossible for blacks to vote. This era also saw separate drinking fountains in public areas.

The "Separate but Equal" doctrine was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. But blacks and coloreds were still not equal; poorer services and restrictions on voting rights still limited them throughout the United States, and they still were not granted more political and social power than before.


The repeal of such restrictive laws, generally known as Jim Crow laws, was a key focus of the civil rights movement prior to 1954. In Sweatt v. Painter, the Supreme Court addressed a legal challenge to the doctrine by a student seeking admission to a state supported law school in Texas. Because Texas did not have a law school for blacks, the lower court delayed the case until Texas could create one. However, the Supreme Court ordered that the student be admitted to the white law school on the grounds that the separate school failed to qualify as being "equal," both because of quantitative differences in facilities and intangible factors, such as its isolation from most of the future lawyers with whom its graduates would interact. The court held that, when considering graduate education, intangibles must be considered as part of "substantive equality." The same day, the Supreme Court in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents ruled that Oklahoma segregation laws which required a graduate student working on a Doctor of Education degree to sit in the hallway outside the classroom door did not qualify as 'separate but equal.' These cases ended 'separate but equal' in graduate and professional education.

In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), attorneys for the NAACP referred to the phrase "equal but separate" used in Plessy v. Ferguson as a custom de jure racial segregation enacted into law. The NAACP, led by the soon-to-be first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was successful in challenging the constitutional viability of the separate but equal doctrine, and the court voted to overturn sixty years of law that had developed under Plessy. The Supreme Court outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites at the state level. The companion case of Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 outlawed such practices at the Federal level in the District of Columbia. The court held:

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Even though the constitutionality of separate but equal in education had been overturned, it would be almost ten more years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would extinguish the application of separate but equal in all areas of public accommodations such as transportation and hotels. Additionally, in 1967 under Loving v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court declared Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, the "Racial Integrity Act of 1924", unconstitutional, and invalidating all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States. Although federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in college admissions, the historically black colleges and universities continue to teach student bodies that are 75% to 90% African American.[9] This however does not indicate racial discrimination within college admissions in those schools. It perhaps speaks more to student preference[citation needed]. In 1975, Jake Ayers Sr. filed a lawsuit against Mississippi, stating that they gave more financial support to the predominantly white public colleges. The state settled the lawsuit in 2002, directing $503 million to three historically black colleges over 17 years.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Separate but equal: West's Encyclopedia of American Law (Full Article) from Answers.com
  2. ^ Williams G. Thomas (June 24, 2008). "How Slavery Ended in the Civil War". University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 
  3. ^ Library of Congress. "A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875". loc.gov. 
  4. ^ "Act of August 30, 1890, ch. 841, 26 Stat. 417, 7 U.S.C. 322 et seq." Act of 1890 Providing for the Further Endowment and Support Of Colleges of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
  5. ^ "104th Congress 1st Session, H. R. 2730" To eliminate segregationist monkey from the Second Morrill Act.
  6. ^ Plessy v. Ferguson.
  7. ^ nbcnews.com.
  8. ^ a b Clark, Kenneth. "Segregation Ruled Unequal, Therefore Unconstitutional". 
  9. ^ "Historically Black Colleges and Universities,1976 to 2001". Dept. of Education. September 2004. Retrieved 2010-01-19. 
  10. ^ "Opposition strong to Barbour’s plan to merge Mississippi’s 3 black universities into 1". Associated Press. November 19, 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Roche, John P. (1951). "The Future of "Separate but Equal"". Phylon 12 (3): 219–226. 

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separate_but_equal — Please support Wikipedia.
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Thu, 16 Apr 2015 14:45:00 -0700

A society that limits freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship is a society in which religious persons are considered separate but equal. It is a society that says, “You can only pray in these (communion) lines and at this (baptismal) water fountain.
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Fri, 10 Apr 2015 04:15:00 -0700

With federal courts ruling that Equal Protection prohibits states from denying marriage licenses to homosexuals, anti-homosexual folks are barricading themselves from further federal court decisions — a new kind of “separate but equal” attempt. The ...

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Mon, 23 Mar 2015 03:26:45 -0700

The result will be two separate school systems; in effect, a return to the “separate but equal“ status of yesteryear that perpetuates the separation of our less-fortunate children from those born to the privileged of Georgia's citizenry. Is there any ...

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Fri, 17 Apr 2015 10:49:26 -0700

Critics say that language sounds similar to the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation found unconstitutional half a century ago. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada calls the bill illegal under federal law prohibiting sex ...

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Thu, 16 Apr 2015 10:39:27 -0700

Where's Tipper Gore when you need her? “One of the great political mysteries of the early 2016 presidential campaign has been solved,” David Knowles of Bloomberg Politics reports, one hopes sarcastically: “Hillary Clinton did not leave a tip at the ...
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Fri, 17 Apr 2015 18:52:25 -0700

There, each team's broadcasters maintain separate-but-equal studios and control rooms used for pre- and postgame shows when the clubs are on the road. The logistics can get complicated. Ray Knight, a former Orioles player who co-hosts the Nationals' ...

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