Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case: Plessy v Ferguson (1896)

The Key Events Leading to Plessy v. Ferguson

Ted Shaw of the University of North Carolina Law School and Michael Klarman of Harvard Law School discussed the key events leading up to the landmark Supreme Course Case Plessy v. Ferguson. They discussed the 13th and 14th amendments, Louisiana's Separate Car Act and reconstruction.


In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Court infamously ruled it was within constitutional boundaries for the state of Louisiana to enforce racial segregation in public facilities. In a 7-1 ruling, the Court established that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to enforce racial equality, not to eliminate the distinction based on color. Under that reasoning, the Court ruled segregation could not be considered unconstitutional. This lesson explore the background of the case, decisions and opinions in the case and the legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson on civil rights.


  • STEP 1.

    As a class, view the following video and answer the questions below to lay the foundation for students to understand this case:

    VIDEO CLIP: The Key Events Leading to Plessy v. Ferguson (5:21)

  • STEP 2:

    Students can either work independently or in groups to view the following video clips. They can either take notes using the handout below or answer the questions associated with each question:

    Handout: Supreme Court Case: Plessy v. Ferguson

  • VIDEO CLIP: Plessy v. Ferguson- People in the Case (3:51)

    • Who was Homer Plessy and why was he selected to be plaintiff in the test case?

    • How was the train company involved in this case? Why was this?

    • What is meant by this being a "test case?"

    • Who was John Ferguson? How did he rule in the state case?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Arrest of Homer Plessy (2:01)

    • Explain the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Homer Plessy.
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Supreme Court during the Plessy v. Ferguson Case (4:18)

    • How did the make-up of the court reflect the politics and beliefs during the Reconstruction Era?

    • Why was Justice Harlan significant and important to this case?
  • VIDEO CLIP: Plessy v. Ferguson- Arguments Supporting Plessy (1:45)

    • Explain the arguments that Albion Tourgée made during the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court Case.
  • VIDEO CLIP: Plessy v. Ferguson- The Decision in the Case (4:16)

    • How did the Supreme Court rule in Plessy v. Ferguson?

    • What is meant by Justice Brown's phrase "in the nature of things?"

    • Explain the idea of a "color-blind" Constitution. How has the Supreme Court interpreted this?

    • Explain Justice Harlan's dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson?
  • VIDEO CLIP: Plessy v. Ferguson's Impact on Segregation (4:43)

    • How did the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson affect other cases involving segregation?

    • What arguments did the NAACP use to challenge segregation preceding Brown v. Board of Education?

    • Explain how other groups, besides African-Americans, were impacted by segregation?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education (4:41)

    • How was Brown v. the Board of Education impacted by the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson?
    • Explain how segregation in public accommodations changed during the 1950s and 1960s.

    • How did the white south react to desegregation? How did the federal government address this?
  • STEP 3:

    As a class, review and discuss the significance of this case, the precedent it set, and its legacy.


    Comparing Supreme Court Cases- Compare and contrast the Constitutional arguments that are made in Plessy v. Ferguson to those in the following Supreme Court Cases.


    Additional Writing Prompts:

    • Why was Justice Harlan's dissenting opinion so important to overturning "separate but equal?"

    • How did Plessy v. Ferguson limit the strength of the Reconstruction amendments?

    • Explain how the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson was representative of the beliefs and priorities of the people at the time.

    • The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was representative of its time. Research other Landmark Supreme Court Cases and explain how those decisions were also representative of their times.

    • How would the history of the United States be different if the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Plessy?

Additional Resources


  • 13th Amendment
  • 14th Amendment
  • Abolitionism
  • Brown V. Board Of Education
  • Civil Rights Act Of 1964
  • Constitution
  • Dissent
  • Extrajudicial
  • Integration
  • Interstate Commerce
  • Intrastate Commerce
  • National Association Of Colored People
  • Plaintiff
  • Precedent
  • Reconstruction
  • Segregation
  • Separate But Equal
  • Supreme Court


Civil Rights & Civil LibertiesSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


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