One hundred years ago this May, Plessy V. Ferguson was decided. The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision upheld Louisiana’s law that required all passenger railways operating within the state to have “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” Over the years, the import of the decision and public perceptions of such state regulations have been misunderstood and at times purposely distorted. Scholars have described the decision as the incarceration of blacks in “the Plessy prison.” The real prison, however, holds all Americans and was built on an unwillingness to examine objectively this important period in American history.

Though Plessy receives enormous attention today in classrooms and in discussions of race relations (especially Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissenting opinion invoking the concept of a colorblind Constitution), the decision was largely ignored for many years. The newspapers of the day that did not disregard the Court’s pronouncement gave it but scant attention. The New York Times, for instance, barely mentioned Plessy in its weekly column on railway news.

Routine affirmations of state regulations were hardly newsworthy in the 1890’s. The War Between the States did change the nature of state and national relations, but the majority of citizens still accepted that the states were sovereign within their proper sphere.

Separate accommodations, rather than being vehicles for white supremacy, were viewed in a different light than they are today. Several black legislators involved in earlier Reconstruction governments actually sought to enact legislation for separate but equal accommodations. Robert Smalls, a black congressman from South Carolina, declared in 1884 that he had “no objection to riding in a separate car when the car is of the same character as that provided for white people to ride in.” Booker T. Washington applauded Alabama’s railroad commissioners for instituting separate but equal accommodations just one year before Plessy and made it clear that “it is not the separation that we complain of, but the unequality of accommodation.” Blacks, who purchased first class tickets and were subjected to the filth of the smoking car or other substandard accommodations, had good reason to remonstrate. Long trips in such conditions were not just uncomfortable, but hazardous to one’s health.

In spite of a justice system that was frequently hostile to them, blacks turned to the courts to demand equal accommodations. It was quite elementary for them to prove that a seat in the baggage or smoking car was not equal to that of first or second class. The success of black plaintiffs enshrined separate-but-equal in common law. The Supreme Court recognized this in 1878 when it upheld separate-but-equal in the common law of common carriers in Hall v. Decuir.

Clearly, Plessy was not the bombshell that it has been so recently billed. State and federal courts had consistently upheld separate-but-equal for years. Lower courts had even declared that separate-but-equal did not conflict with the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial discrimination in access to public accommodations (and was declared unconstitutional in 1883).

Modern accounts of Plessy seldom mention that blacks often fought for separate-but-equal in legislatures and courts. Because scholars find it difficult to explain the acceptance of such segregation, they normally conclude that conditions were so bad for blacks that almost anything was considered an improvement. In many cases this was no doubt true. The freedmen faced much hostility and very difficult circumstances.

However, such an explanation ignores, in the words of Eugene D. Genovese, “that black nationalism represents an authentic tendency within black America, rather than a pathological response to oppression.” A nation, united by common folkways and culture must, to some extent, separate itself from the cultures of rival nations to remain intact. This has been extremely challenging for black America, considering the subjugation and the alien culture forced upon them in slavery. And though separate accommodations certainly are not necessary for the preservation of culture, the acceptance of the need of some type of separation to preserve a culture explains why it was tolerated.

Black attitudes at the time are much easier to understand if one remembers that much of the black intellectual environment in the years before and after Plessy favored some sort of separation. Many blacks, for instance, were involved in various “back to Africa” movements. Before the War Between the States, the Friendly Society for the Emigration of Free Negroes, founded by a free black shipowner, took a number of families back to Africa. Martin R. Delany, coeditor with Frederick Douglass of the North Star, explored the region of the Niger River and signed agreements with several African kings for a settlement of emigrants from America. More noteworthy were the activities of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and his calls for black emigration in the years between the War Between the States and World War I.

Certainly not all blacks favored emigration. Most only wanted to be left in peace in America to farm and raise their children. But among those who desired to remain in North America, there was still an element of separatism in their thinking. Booker T. Washington, the undisputed leader of the black community at the time, declared that the races could be “as separate as the fingers” in a system that accorded blacks equal treatment in their legal relations in the private economy.

Other blacks and white progressives tried to supplant separatist tendency in the black community. W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP provided virulent criticism of Washington’s emphasis on economic freedom rather than social equality. After Washington’s death in 1915, Dubois and his cohorts set their sights on Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA) calls for black autonomy and economic self-reliance.

Today, despite the post-Brown push for forced integration vis-à-vis judicial activism and broad legislation, black nationalism is just as strong as it was in the days of Booker T. Washington and the Garvey movement. The total failure of integration to improve the quality of life for the majority of black Americans is no doubt responsible for the resurgence of nationalism within the black community.

The acceptance of Louis Farrakhan by the black community during the Million Man March underscores black nationalistic aspirations today. The Nation of Islam itself, of course, was founded by Elijah Muhammad to build a separate black nation paid for by white reparations for slavery. Though Farrakhan avoids blatant calls for total black separation, he nonetheless declares that blacks cannot “integrate into white supremacy and hold our dignity as human beings.” And since Farrakhan sees white supremacy as “the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world,” he is in reality saying that blacks cannot integrate into American society, which is a branch of Western civilization.

The popularity of Islam among blacks (not necessarily the Nation of Islam) is emblematic of this rejection of Western culture. Many blacks see Christianity as a “slave religion” and seek a substitute. By the year 2000, Islam will become the second largest religion in the United States due to black converts and immigrants. Black Christian nationalism, with a black Madonna and Christ, is also an alternative for many blacks to mainstream Christianity. A main tenet of black Christian nationalism is to teach “the necessity for separatism,” along with the path to eternal salvation.

Other calls for some degree of racial separation are just as loud as that of the separatist religious element. Interracial adoption, for example, is most ardently opposed by black social workers. The National Association of Black Social Workers unabashedly declares that “black children belong to black parents.” They rightly fear that interracial adoptees will lose contact with their heritage and not develop culturally and psychologically as they would in a black family.

The strongest front on the integration backlash is, fittingly, school desegregation. Across the nation, black parents are demanding a return to neighborhood schools no matter what their racial composition. In Cleveland, the local NAACP has met strong opposition from within the black community to its attempts to force cross-district busing. “I did not give the civil rights attorneys permission to holocaust my children and get paid for it,” says black parent and busing opponent Genevieve Mitchell. Blacks like Mitchell are rejecting the notion that black children need the company of white children to learn. Recent studies show that black academic performance is the last reason why anyone should favor policies of integration.

This change of attitude in the black community, according to Aaron Gray, the black President of Denver’s School Board, is because “pre-1954 was separate and unequal. The difference is today that you can step into an African-American school and you can see the same amount of resources that are provided to a majority Anglo school.” Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has defended black schools: “Because of their distinctive histories and traditions, black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.”

Gray and Thomas’s words contest the Warren Court’s assertions in Brown and the 40 years of judicially sponsored social engineering that followed the Court’s 1954 decision. They signify black abandonment of the opiate of integration that has caused so much damage to American society.

The 100th anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson is a proper time to recognize the existence of healthy black nationalistic tendencies. Though Plessy was at most a footnote in history for many years, it has now unfortunately become a symbol of the need of complete integration. Justice Harlan’s calls for a color-blind Constitution have animated universalists to instigate an all-out push for a Utopian society.

Such good intentions drive the likes of the Institute for Justice, as they and their kindred organizations litigate to end the use of race as a criterion in state adoption decisions. Good intentions drive civil rights lawyers as they attempt to force more busing and court supervision of local schools. Fortunately for blacks, these good intentions to undo perceived past wrongs are meeting with stiff resistance from within their own community.

Only when black tendencies for various degrees of separation along with the same tendencies found in white America are accepted and respected can we free ourselves from the fetters of the modern era. By ignoring the needs of both whites and blacks to preserve their unique cultures, policymakers threaten both groups. Blacks, however, will stand up and defend their institutions, while whites sit passively by.

One hundred years after the much maligned Plessy decision, black nationalism is as strong as ever. Whites, on the other hand, do little more than mumble platitudes about a nation dedicated to a proposition when given the opportunity to defend their culture. It does not take much guesswork to figure out which of the two nations will survive another 100 years.