Plessy v. Ferguson


People who commit crimes are often thought to be "bad" people or people who are engaged in deleterious behavior. This lesson looks at two separate crimes in order to frame law-breaking as a sometimes more complex issue. The first crime that students will examine is that of Homer Plessy, who violated Louisiana’s Separate Car Act and whose appeal of his arrest to the Supreme Court resulted in the codification of the "separate but equal" laws that were enacted in many states. The second crime that students will examine is Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refusal to integrate Little Rock High School after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1957. Students will choose one of the crimes and draw out the events of each in a four-frame comic strip.


Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, requiring black and white patrons to sit in separate sections of railcars on intrastate railroads. Homer Plessy, in a pre-meditated act of defiance, boarded a train in New Orleans and announced that he was neither white nor inclined to move to a section for African Americans. For this he was arrested and convicted of violating the Act. He appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled that, as long as the accommodations were equal, states could legally enforce segregation. This decision stood until a unanimous Supreme Court verdict overturned it in 1954 in the Brown v. Board ruling.

Little Rock, Arkansas (1957): In 1954, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that local laws mandating segregated schools were unconstitutional. In Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words, "in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

A second ruling in 1955 announced that the integration of America’s public schools should take place "with all deliberate speed." Thus, the Little Rock school board created a program to phase in integration beginning in 1957 with Central High School. Facing re-election and running against ardent segregationists, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to deny nine African American students (dubbed the Little Rock Nine) entrance to Central High School, though it had been mandated by Brown and by a federal judge. In response to his intransigence, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne and used federal power to force Little Rock to integrate Central High School. In the end, Faubus was not punished and went on to win reelection.


Essential Question

Is it ever just to break the law? How did Homer Plessy and Orval Faubus break the law? What are some of the differences between what they did and how they were punished?


  • Students will be able to analyze political cartoons.
  • Students will be able to identify and explain the issues of Plessy v. Ferguson and of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School.
  • Students will be able to analyze the complex issues behind breaking laws.


Show students the political cartoon depicting a black passenger being forced to leave a railcar. In their notebooks, have them answer the questions:

  • What is happening in this political cartoon?
  • Who is breaking the law?

The teacher will call on students to share what they have written. Inform students that the class will explore how railcar segregation became law and why people violated that law.


  1. After the motivation, students will read the explanation of the Plessy case at the PBS website, linked above. It can be printed and duplicated, or, if students are accessing it via the internet, they can choose to watch the short video clip on the page that adds some information to the printed text. Ask students to take brief notes with a partner as they read.
  2. Students will share their notes with the class and the teacher will record them on chart paper and hang the paper on the wall so that all students have a common understanding of the case.
  3. Students will view a secondary source cartoon from Syracuse University (linked above) that will serve to reinforce the content from the reading.
  4. Students will view a picture of an African American woman drinking from a water fountain labeled "colored only" (linked above). The teacher will make clear to the class that this was legal because of the Plessy case in which the Supreme Court decided that as long as accommodations were equal, segregation on the basis of race was legal.
  5. Students will engage in a class discussion in which the teacher will ask:
    • Should all laws be followed?
    • Do people have the right to choose what laws they will follow? Why or why not?
    • Should Homer Plessy be considered a criminal? Should he be considered a hero?
    • Does Plessy’s premeditated planning to break the law make his crime more or less heinous? Why?
  6. The teacher will inform students that they are going to look at another case in which a person planned to break a law: Orval Faubus resisting the legally mandated integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  7. Briefly explain that in 1954, in a case called Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" decision that had been in effect since the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896. Read students the quotation from Chief Justice Earl Warren: "in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Thus, all school districts in the United States would have to be integrated and have students of different races attend school together.
  8. Pass out sets of images of the events in Little Rock (see links above) to students in their reading pairs. Ask students to write down what they think happened in Little Rock based on the pictures. After ten minutes, have the pairs share their hypotheses with the class. Write down the correct analyses on another sheet of chart paper and post it.
  9. Have pairs analyze the timeline at the National Park Service website linked above and add three new facts to the story they created from the Little Rock images. Again, have the pairs share their stories and add the new facts onto the chart paper.
  10. Students will engage in a class discussion in which the teacher will ask:
    • Who broke the law?
    • Why do you think that Orval Faubus broke the law against segregation in schools? How did that affect white and black residents of Little Rock?
    • What should his punishment have been?
    • How does this crime compare to that of Homer Plessy?
  11. Students in their pairs will choose one of the "crimes" and draw a four-frame comic strip that depicts its important events.


Students will write a short essay on a topic of their choice:

  • Are all crimes equal? 
  • If laws are unfair, should we break them? Why or why not?
  • Are there crimes for which we should not be punished? If so, what are they? If not, why not?