Segregation, de jure


Description: Separation of races required by law or other local, state, or federal official action.

Significance: From 1896 to 1954 the Supreme Court consistently held that de jure segregation did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities provided were equal.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court sustained a Louisiana law requiring passenger trains to provide separate but equal accommodations for the “white and colored races.” So long as the facilities provided to the races were equal, the Court concluded, mandated segregation did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Three years later, however, in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), the Court refused to extend the separate but equal doctrine to matters of public education, thus permitting Richmond County to educate white children through the twelfth grade, but black children only through the eighth grade. In a series of cases decided between 1938 and 1950, the Court suggested that segregated public schools might be constitutionally suspect. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the Court ordered the all-white University of Missouri school of law to admit an African American man who had been denied admission to the state's only law school solely because of his race. In two similar cases decided in 1950 Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education the Court ordered professional schools in Texas and Oklahoma to desegregate. These cases and others crippled de jure segregation in public education. Finally, on May 17, 1954, the Court rendered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren asserted that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In this way, the Court repudiated long-standing constitutional precedent with respect to de jure segregation. The concise opinion in Brown did not mention Plessy. Nonetheless, in Browder v. Gayle (1956), the Court silently overturned Plessy by affirming a lower court opinion that held that Brown had “impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled” Plessy in striking down a statute requiring segregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. In a series of cases that followed, the Court applied the principle articulated in Brown to de jure segregation in other public facilities.

Further Reading

  • Clotfelter, Charles. After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Friedman, Leon, ed. “Brown v. Board”: The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court. New York: New Press, 2004.
  • Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
  • Higginbotham, A. Leon. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of “Brown v. Board of Education” and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
  • Kull, Andrew. The Color-Blind Constitution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America. New York: Facts On File, 1997.
  • Tussman, Joseph, ed. The Supreme Court on Racial Discrimination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.