The 30-year-old man of mixed-race heritage sat in the whites-only section of the train. When a conductor ordered him to move
to a dingy rail car reserved for blacks, he refused, was arrested and convicted at a trial.
The man appealed his case to the Supreme Court. Four years later, the court rejected his claim that sitting in a segregated train car stamped him with "a badge of servitude."
The New York Times published only two paragraphs on the 7-1 decision. But Homer Adolph Plessy, the man on the train, did not fade from history. Plessy v. Ferguson
eventually became known as one of the Supreme Court's most nakedly racist decisions. The 1896 ruling played a pivotal role in giving legal cover to Jim Crow segregation that would last for more than half a century.
It's hard today not to marvel at the casual cruelty of the Plessy decision. How could the court accept the transparent lie that blacks lived in separate but equal worlds with whites? And how could they give Constitutional sanction to a blatant display of racism?
You don't have to study history to answer those questions. Watch what happens this week when the US Supreme Court issues its decision on whether the Trump administration can add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census
, some legal scholars and historians say.
They say the conservative majority on the court is on the verge of embracing some of the same legal rationalizations
that produced Jim Crow segregation in the census case.
"If they accept the census question, they are following the same pattern that the late-19th-century and 20th-century court made that was clearly intended to cement white rule," says Lawrence Goldstone, author of "Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903."
A court that sees and hears no evil
The census-citizenship case is expected to be one of the most significant Supreme Court cases involving race
in recent history.
It already has many of the elements of a John Grisham thriller: a cabinet member caught in apparent lies
; revelations from a recently deceased Republican operative's computer hard drives
discovered by his estranged daughter; a last-minute cliffhanger
that may bring the case back to the court even if it rules this week.
The case revolves around a simple request. The Trump administration says it wants the Census Bureau to ask residents whether they are US citizens. The Department of Justice says it would help ensure the voting rights of racial minorities.
But critics say it's really about a deeper question: Will the new conservative majority on the court ignore what opponents of the question call "smoking-gun evidence"
that the case is really about preserving "white power"
Some court watchers expect they will and that they will do this by borrowing some of the same tactics
their counterparts used in the late 19th century to legitimize Jim Crow segregation.
The formula for this version of White Supremacy 2.0 is the same as it was then: Ignore the racist intent behind laws to justify a preordained decision, says Goldstone, author of "Inherently Unequal."