The Fourteenth Amendment and Civil Rights
Following the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in December of 1865, officially ending slavery in the United States. Throughout the former Confederacy, however, emancipated blacks—called “freedmen”—were still mistreated and held in a form of virtual slavery. Southern states ratified the 13th Amendment only grudgingly, and many adopted so-called “Black Codes.” These laws placed rigid restrictions on freedmen and instituted criminal punishments that were much harsher than those imposed on whites.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Aug. 6, 1868, issue of the Wooster Republican (Wooster, Ohio)
The U.S. Congress worked to curtail this growing oppression of African-Americans and change government and legal structures made obsolete by the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Its solution was a proposed “Reconstruction” amendment to the Constitution, which when ratified on July 9, 1868, became the 14th Amendment.
The amendment included five sections. Most significant for civil rights was the first, which:
- Held that all people born in the United States are citizens. This overturned the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, that persons of African descent were not citizens and therefore not entitled to constitutional rights.
- Prohibited states from revoking “life, liberty or property” without due process of law.
- Required states to guarantee equal protection under the law.
As the newspaper article reproduced above explains (there were 37 states in 1868): “This, in simpler terms, provides the legal equality of all citizens of the United States. Instead of having thirty-seven nationalities and thirty-seven citizenships, each varying and to be varied according to the whims and passions of a majority of each State, we are to have one common citizenship, which will belong to a man wherever he may be.”
The civil rights provisions of the 14th Amendment became a source of lasting controversy and struggle. More Supreme Court cases have involved interpretation of the 14th Amendment than any other section of the Constitution. For example, the amendment’s equal protection clause was the basis for the seminal 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that “separate but equal” was not constitutional.
As a practical matter, for nearly 100 years after its adoption the 14th Amendment did little to improve the lives of African-Americans across the South. Following Reconstruction, Southern states replaced their Black Codes with “Jim Crow” laws, denying most African-Americans the vote and enacting discrimination into law as if the 14th Amendment did not exist. Congress in turn reacted, and less than two years after the 14th Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Feb. 3, 1870, guaranteeing voting rights to male citizens regardless of race, color, or status as former slaves.
Jim Crow laws persisted, however. When called upon for review, the Supreme Court usually ruled to allow discrimination to persist, notably in the infamous 1896 “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that sanctioned racial segregation. Congressional efforts to enforce the 14th Amendment, such as those of Indiana Congressman Edgar Crumpacker, were also unsuccessful. Only in the mid-20th century did the civil rights promise of the 14th Amendment finally begin to be fulfilled.
Here is the text of the historic 14th Amendment:
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
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