Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson

By Mark Elliott | Go to book overview

9
The Rejection of Color-Blind
Citizenship: Plessy v. Ferguson

The object of the "Fourteenth" Amendment was undoubtedly
to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law,
but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to
abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as
distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the
two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.

—Justice Henry Billings Brown, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896

The colored man and those white men who believe in liberty
and justice—who do not think Christ's teachings a sham-
must join hands and hearts … without both united, there is no
hope of success.

—Tourgée to Louis A. Martinet, October 31, 1893

HE ASKS NOTHING AS A NEGRO," Tourgée appealed on behalf of blacks in 1890. "It is as a citizen merely that we are called on to consider what rights and privileges he is entitled to exercise."1 The "color-blind" argument, however, became increasingly difficult to maintain as the legal evisceration of the Reconstruction Amendments proceeded into the 1890s. In fact, the language of color-blind "equal citizenship" had been used by Justice Joseph Bradley in his Supreme Court majority opinion in the Civil Rights Cases (1883). Bradley wrote, "There must be some stage in the progress of "the "Negro's"" elevation when he takes the rank of mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen are protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected."2 Although crudely misrepresenting the purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as turning blacks into the special favorites of the laws, Bradley's logic foreshadowed the appropriation and transformation of the principle of equality before the

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