It has become more popular than ever to disagree with a ruling of the United States Supreme Court.
Most people disregard these complaints as the sour grapes from those on the losing side. But you have to look no further than Plessey v. Ferguson to see that sometimes the court decisions are less than perfect and should be completely retracted. Unfortunately, that can take decades.
The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was certified 147 years ago. The intent of this amendment was to recognize full equality for black people in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.
It gave black people “equal protection under the law.” They could now vote, own a business and own property.
Even after the amendment was ratified, segregation was still in place, and many states and businesses fought integration by creating special services and facilities for black people.
Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling almost 25 years later, the 14th Amendment remained limited in scope. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the court was somehow able to twist and turn legal arguments to create a principle known as “separate but equal.” It allowed states and other governmental agencies to keep segregation in place as long as they offered “separate but equal” facilities and services for black people.
Thus began a period of segregated schools, railroad cars (which was the basis for the case that established the new legal principle), restrooms, and even hospitals.
Seven justices agreed with the Plessy decision. Only one voted against.
Justice John Harlan said in his dissent, “The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.”
Justice David Brewer didn’t participate in the decision. Can you imagine that happening in 2015? But Brewer didn’t just sit it out. His daughter’s untimely death took him back to Leavenworth, Kansas, while the arguments were made in the case.
With seven votes in favor, his vote wouldn’t have mattered anyway. However, most people agree that the son of an abolitionist pastor who had fought against slavery in his youth would probably have been a second vote against.
A second Kansas connection exists in the adjudication of the 14th Amendment because Plessy v. Ferguson was finally overturned almost a century after the amendment was ratified.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. (Topeka) Board of Education that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional.
In four cases from four different states, appellate courts upheld those local laws on the basis that schools for black children may have been separate, but they were still equal.
The Supreme Court, in the writing of Justice Earl Warren ruled unanimously that, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group... Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
That ruling was a major step forward in what would be the civil rights movement of the decades that followed.
The most unfortunate part of the ruling is that it didn’t come along for almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War and the attempt to give black people equal rights.
What is still even more shocking to me is that black men were given the right to vote almost half a century before women of any color.
For the first two centuries of our existence, the United States was much more home of the brave than the land of the free – unless you were a white guy.

Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at kent.bush@news-star.com.