Since its beginnings, America has struggled with the principle of equality for all people. From slaves and immigrants to women and the LGBTQ community and to the elderly and disabled, the battle against discrimination in the workplace, schools and voting booths has been long and painful.
Simply stating that discrimination would no longer be tolerated did not translate into bringing new opportunity to those people who had suffered prejudicial treatment. The question became how to overcome the tension between an individual’s claim to equal treatment by a state, and that state’s responsibility to foster equality among its citizens.
Brown v. Board of Education was the Court’s greatest twentieth-century decision, a pivotal case that separated one era from another and that permanently reshaped the debate about race and American society.
On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy waited at the Press Street railroad depot in New Orleans. He had a first-class ticket for a thirty-mile trip to Covington, Louisiana. The train arrived on time at 4:15 in the afternoon, and the nicely dressed, well-groomed young man entered the first-class carriage, took a seat, gave his ticket to the conductor, and boldly spoke words that led to his arrest and trial in a court of law.
In 1857 the Supreme Court refused to grant Dred Scott’s petition for freedom from slavery. In the 1830s, Dred Scott had moved from St. Louis with his owner, Dr. Emerson, to the free state of Illinois. After Emerson’s death, Scott returned to St. Louis with the doctor’s widow.