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Defining Moments

Plessy v. Ferguson

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The court case Plessy v. Ferguson had a titanic impact on the lives of millions of Americans, both black and white. The Supreme Court decision relegated generations of African Americans to lives of limited economic opportunity, stunted educational options, and daily humiliations. The law also shaped the contours of life for white Americans, who benefited from Jim Crow laws that gave them enormous advantages in employment, education, and housing. The legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson continues to this day, as the nation continues to struggle with issues related to race.

Defining Moments: Plessy v. Ferguson provides a detailed and authoritative overview of events surrounding the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision that legalized racial segregation and established separate but equal as the law of the land. After surveying historical conditions of the postwar Reconstruction era, it details the legal arguments on both sides of the Plessy case and the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling. It also follows the spread of discriminatory Jim Crow laws throughout the South in the aftermath of the decision and shows how segregation affected the lives of African Americans. Finally, this volume covers the courageous efforts by civil rights activists to overturn Plessy and gain legal and social equality for black citizens.

The volume is organized into three distinct sections—Narrative Overview, Biographies, and Primary Sources—which offer a one-stop resource for student research.

  • The Narrative Overview section provides a detailed, factual account of what led up to the Plessy decision, the events and issues during the era, and its legacy in American society
  • The Biographies section presents valuable biographical background on leading figures associated with the Plessy decision
  • The Primary Sources section collects a wide variety of pertinent primary source materials from the era, including official documents, first-hand accounts, memoirs, Supreme Court opinion, newspaper articles and editorials, and other important works

Other notable features include a glossary of important people, places, and terms; a detailed chronology featuring page references to relevant sections of the narrative; an annotated listing of selected sources for further study; an extensive general bibliography; and a subject index.

Standard Features

  • Library binding, 7 1/4 x 9 1/4
  • 240 pages
  • 30-40 photographs and other illustrations
  • Narrative Overview section: Provides a detailed, factual account of the “defining moment”
  • Biographies section: Presents valuable biographical background on leading figures associated with the event
  • Primary Sources section: Collects a wide variety of pertinent primary source materials from the era
  • Research Topics: Proposes a list of topics suitable for conducting historical research and writing reports, a valuable starting point for student research
  • Source Attribution: Contains references for primary sources and other quoted material that guide users to other historical research resources
  • Glossary of Important People, Places, and Terms: Gives brief definitions for the many terms used in the book
  • Chronology: Highlights the related events in chronological order, along with “see” references that direct the reader to pages in the narrative with additional information
  • Sources for Further Study: Provides annotated citations for selected sources that are most useful to students
  • Bibliography: Lists books, periodicals, web sites, and videos consulted in preparing the volume
  • Subject Index: Includes people, places, organizations, events, and other topics

Research Topics

Each volume in the Defining Moments series covers a wide range of topics that students can use as starting points for further research. Potential research topics for Defining Moments: Plessy v. Ferguson are below:

  • Examine the various factors that encouraged “Redeemers” in the South to resist the North’s Reconstruction efforts and propose what, if anything, the federal government could have done differently to make lasting change possible
  • Discuss some of the political, social, and economic factors that led to the segregation of people by race in the United States
  • Compare and contrast these two individuals’ personal backgrounds and the outcome of their protests: Homer Plessy, who was arrested for refusing to comply with a segregated seating policy in 1892, and Rosa Parks, who was arrested for the same crime in 1955
  • Compare and contrast the main reasons provided by Justice Henry Billings Brown for finding “separate but equal” accommodations constitutional and the responses from Justice John Marshall Harlan to each of Brown’s justifications
  • Discuss which man’s legal arguments are most convincing—Justice Henry Billings Brown or Justice John Marshall Harlan—and which seem most consistent with the U.S. Constitution
  • Explore to what extent the Plessy v. Ferguson decision merely reflected public opinion of the time or inflamed race hate and promoted the spread of segregation
  • Explain the main legal arguments behind the unanimous 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine
  • Discuss the reasons why public transportation has been a flashpoint in the battle against segregation—from Homer Plessy to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Freedom Rides
  • Debate these views: many Americans believe that political, economic, and cultural gains by blacks and other minorities—most notably the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008—show that racism in the United States is mostly a thing of the past, while others contend that the deck is still stacked against black Americans in numerous respects
  • Discuss the legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson and explore the relevance this episode in U.S. history holds for Americans today


“High-school students will likely find this, and others in the Defining Moments series, a boon for writing the dreaded historical-research paper. Rather than identifying and poring over sources for their research, readers can find here a one-stop shop: ideas for related topics; vetted, in-depth, well-documented, and interestingly written descriptions of the subject; biographies of important related people; full-text primary source documents; relevant places and terms; a chronology; and more. In short, a wonderful place to begin.”

—Booklist, Dec ’13

“For many students today it may be hard to image a time when segregation was a fact of life and questioned by few. The book examines how the Plessy v. Ferguson case came to be and the legacy it left on race relations for decades after it was stated. … Adult lay readers and college students looking for a more detailed discussion of the case and its context may also want to read this title to understand the political, social, and economic factors that led to this decision as well as how it promoted racial tension and social segregation for years to come. … Recommended for public, school, and academic libraries.”

—American Reference Books Annual, 2014

“An important source book to the historiography of the landmark case Plessy v Ferguson. …Aimed at students and anyone wishing to learn about American’s struggle and successful efforts to extend civil rights to all citizens. … Highly recommended.”

—Colonial Latin American Historical Review, 2014

“Provides a wealth of background material, primary sources, and ideas for student research papers on the fight against Jim Crow laws. Students will appreciate the book’s larger type and its many b&w historical photos, political cartoons, and illustrations. The book offers a narrative overview of the rise of Jim Crow laws, the case and its legacy, and the efforts of the Civil Rights movement to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, and provides biographies of key figures on all sides of the case.”

—Reference and Research Book News, Dec ’13