Is Separate Ever Equal?


Earlier this year, multiple media outlets reported John Bel Edwards as governor of Louisiana on January 4, 2022, granted a full pardon to Homer Plessy. Plessy was the plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) in the late 1890s which upheld as constitutional the doctrine of “separate but equal.” 1 
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the SCOTUS ruled that racial segregation laws did not violate the fourteenth amendment of the US Constitution. 
The 14th amendment – which, along with the 13th and 15th amendments are often referred to as the Civil War Amendments or Reconstruction Amendments – is summarized by the phrase “equal protection under the law.” (The 13th amendment banned slavery, and the 15th amendment granted blacks the right to vote.) The 14th amendment has been a foundation for countless challenges to legislation heard by the SCOTUS.

Plessy, born during the American Civil War as a free person of color, became involved in politics and specifically political activism and action during the 1880s. In 1892, he purchased a ticket for a “whites only” berth on a passenger train which violated the Louisiana Separate Car Act.2 
This means exactly what the title of the legislation suggests – white passengers rode in cars designated for “whites only” and black passengers road in cars designated for “blacks only.” In Plessy v. Ferguson, the SCOTUS ruled the concept of separate accommodations was constitutional provided the accommodations were “putatively equal.” This is a fancy word that suggests a reasonable person or an objective society would see the separate accommodations as equal or equivalent or comparable. Each venue must provide the same or similar services, to be in comparable condition and so forth.

In 1954 the SCOTUS ruling in Brown v. Board of Education upended the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The SCOTUS ruled unanimously that state-sanctioned segregation in the public school system violated the 14th amendment (described above) and was therefore unconstitutional. 
This led infamously to Governor George Wallace – a determined segregationist – blocking the doors to black students attending the University of Alabama. “In January of 1963, following his election as Governor of Alabama, George Wallace famously stated in his inaugural address: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”3

These events contributed to the civil rights unrest and movement of the 1960s and the bussing debate of the 1970s. “In an effort to address the ongoing de facto segregation in schools, the 1971 Supreme Court decision, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, ruled that the federal courts could use busing as a further integration tool to achieve racial balance.”4 Candidates for the Democrat nomination for the 2020 election of the president of the United States raised this bussing issue during their debates. Candidates Kamala Harris (currently serving as the American Vice President) and Joseph Biden (currently serving as the American President) had a tense exchange over segregation and bussing.

“Former Vice President Joe Biden was forced to defend his record on desegregation in the 1970s under grilling from Sen. Kamala Harris of California — the only black candidate on the Democratic debate stage Thursday night. The intense exchange came less than two weeks after Biden came under harsh criticism for boasting about his ability to form personal relationships in past decades with race-baiting former Sens. James Eastland, D-Miss., and Herman Talmadge, D-Ga. ‘It was hurtful,’ Harris said, to hear Biden speak of his bonds with those senators. 
She told the story of a little girl who was in an early wave of children to integrate schools in California, ending the anecdote with these words: ‘That little girl was me.’5

And the name of Homer Plessy, along with the case Plessy v. Ferguson are invoked in the ongoing debates. Both sides of the aisle rely on the name and the case to support their positions.

“In an August 24 press release, the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) compared the decision by the University of Colorado to house students who wish to carry guns on campus in separate dormitories than non-gun-carrying students to the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which announced the racist ‘separate but equal’ doctrine.”6

“In a lengthy piece Sunday headlined ‘In the census-citizenship case, the Supreme Court may once again affirm white rule’ CNN Enterprise writer and producer John Blake recalled the story of Homer Plessy. 
A mixed-race man, Plessy sat in a whites-only section of a Louisiana train in 1892, was arrested and convicted, and later saw the Supreme Court reject his argument that the incident violated his rights. The decision created the infamous doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ and effectively green-lit Jim Crow laws.7

With debates ongoing ranging from cake baking to vaccine passports, the issue of separate but equal is still alive. Colleges have become the newest space to promote segregation. One outlet reports:

“A new report by the National Association of Scholars has identified more than 75 schools offering segregated graduations. These supplemental commencement ceremonies are offered in addition to the universities’ regular graduation ceremonies and are not mandatory.”8

With an apology to our international readership for a decidedly American article, I want to present “the conclusion of the whole matter.”9 The “Issacharian”10 in each of us needs to understand the times and there are several takeaways from the preceding.

The SCOTUS does not always get it right.

The conclusions of the SCOTUS cut both ways and what can support today’s argument can hamper tomorrow’s.

We need to be very careful of our foundational principles since the foundation laid defines the house of belief built upon it.

Our Biblical literacy is what counts. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”11 Now is the time to sharpen the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”12

And above all, let us make sure that we do not allow a separate but equal attitude to pervade our churches. In November, I wrote about the scandal recorded in Acts 21 when Paul was seen in Jerusalem with Trophimus a gentile from Ephesus. In January, I wrote about the concept of othering and how this has been used to dimmish the rights and the humanity of other groups. I repeat what I wrote then – One Creator, One Condition, One Confession, One Commission, One Church.


1 The phrase reverses the wording in the Louisiana law, which actually used the phrase “equal but separate.”

9 From Ecclesiastes 12:13

10 “And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.” 
– 1 Chronicles 12:32

11 2 Timothy 2:15 KJV

12 Ephesians 6:17