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Guest Column

A 1896 United States Supreme Court Decision Has Lasting Influence Today

Dr. Salvatore Pizzuro

Friday, January 25, 2013 • 8:09am

On May 18, 1896, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the constitutionality of individual State decisions that followed a Separate but Equal doctrine. The Supreme Court rendered a 7 to 1 vote in favor of continuing a separation of the races. Justice David Josiah Brewer did not vote, as he was mourning the death of his daughter. The lone dissenter on the Court was John
Marshall Harlan, a jurist who grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The majority opinion was written by Henry Billings Brown of Kentucky.

The result of Plessy v. Ferguson was the cementing of a doctrine that would last for more than half a century and beyond. Although the original case emanated from a dispute regarding railroads, the most meaningful impact was on public schools throughout most of the United States. It was now official United States policy that the schools could be segregated under the concept that education would be separate but equal. It was not until
1950 that a group of civil rights advocates convinced Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas to become one of the plaintiffs in a class action suit called Brown v. the Board of Education.

Each morning, Oliver Brown’s daughter walked six bocks to a school bus stop in order to be taken to a school for black children, even though there was a school seven blocks from her home that was reserved for whites. In 1954, the famous Brown decision was finally rendered, ostensibly to integrate all public schools in America. However, resistance continued for many years, as members of the Congress and several Governors challenged
the Supreme Court decision.

Today, some of the remnants of the Plessy v. Ferguson policy and concept continue in the lives of people with disabilities. Separation continues in the rate of employment, access to public transportation, community acquiescence, housing, healthcare and other aspects of community living. Perhaps the most egregious separation exists in the granting of civil, human, and due process rights. People with disabilities continue to be second class citizens, despite landmark legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of
1990 and its amended version 20 years later, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Both mandates were challenged at the time of passage and continue to be violated today. Interestingly, Section 504 was vetoed twice by President Richard Nixon (the second was a pocket veto). Perhaps most troubling is that government officials who tend to ignore the constitutional gurantee of “Equal Protection” do not recognize that they are violating the civil rights of a large group of citizens. Perhaps those public officials even consider
themselves to be “Advocates for People with Disabilities.”

Nevertheless, it is time to discard the underlying concept that people with disabilities are an “inferior” group of people who do not require the rights that the non-disabled population enjoys.

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