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The Greatest Contraction of American Democracy

By Kolbe Renkert, V Form

The following speech was written in response to the prompt, “What event in history most contracted or expanded American democracy?” I chose to write about the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson as the greatest contraction of American democracy.

The legalization of second-class citizenship. The legalization of inferiority among races. The legalization of segregation. The 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson was the greatest contraction of democracy in the history of the United States because it gave power to the majority, created inequality among all citizens, interfered with personal liberties, and increased further segregation in public institutions. American democracy includes the protection of human rights for all citizens, as well as the notion that laws and rights apply equally to all individuals. However, as Plessy v. Ferguson demonstrates, American democracy did not mean that equality under the law meant equal treatment.

In an attempt to battle the segregation laws sweeping the South in the late 1800s, the Citizens Committee of New Orleans set out to test the Separate Car Act. The Act passed in 1890 by the Louisiana legislature established “separate but equal” accommodations for black and white passengers on railroads. On June 7th 1892, Homer Plessy, being one eighth African American, sat in the “white only” section of a Louisiana Railroad car. When asked to move, Plessy refused and was arrested. The case moved from the Louisiana Court to the United States Supreme Court where they ruled that as long as the facilities for each race were equal, the act was constitutional. This ruling confirmed that it was not a violation of the constitution to racially segregate in public spaces.

To understand how controversial the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson was, it is necessary to go back to the creation of the Constitution in 1787. Our Founding Fathers created a form of government in which the minority group would be protected. While slavery was an element of the world that the Founding Fathers envisioned, by the 1890s, the social and political climate had shifted and the practice of slavery no longer held a place in the industrialized, evolving country. It is clear that the white male citizens who held political control monopolized social and governmental power over African Americans, or the minority group at the time of the court decision. The decision of Plessy v. Ferguson gave power to whites to pass the law of “separate but equal” as well as determine that the 14th amendment only guaranteed political equality, not social equality. By going against the constitution, the courts went against democracy as well.

Each person, regardless of race is entitled to specific rights as an American citizen. The law of separate but equal could not be enforced without breaching an individual’s personal liberties. The segregation law was unconstitutional because the facilities for blacks and whites were not of the same standard. Within the Fourteenth Amendment, there is also a Due Process clause stating that state and local government officials cannot deprive a person of life, liberty or property. The Separate Car Act was a clear violation of the unalienable rights granted to blacks as citizens by the 13th 14th and 15th amendments.

The ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson hit the South like a tidal wave washing away black’s hopes of equality and drowning them with further segregation. The ruling encouraged the further separation of public facilities; Jim Crow laws were implemented and the progress made during Reconstruction all but disintegrated. Blacks continued to see their civil rights threatened as funding for African American schools dropped and less attention was given to the affairs of the black community. The case not only justified the segregation of races, the national ruling prompted the spread of inequality throughout the country.

The case of Plessy v. Ferguson was one of the first cracks of lightning in the brewing storm of inequality. It made the legal decision that the majority held the power, directly contradicting the constitution and the very definition of democracy; that all citizens are entitled to equal rights. The ruling placed black citizens’ inalienable rights in danger. The case even continued to cultivate future segregation and limit the abilities of blacks until the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education eliminated the “separate but equal clause in 1954. The passage of the “Separate But Equal” law by the government was the judicial epicenter of legalized racial discrimination and marked the greatest contraction of democracy in the history of the United States.

Kolbe Renkert is a V former from Ohio. She enjoys playing tennis, seeing friends, and, until now, did not think anyone would ever ask to publish her US History speech!

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