"ALL" Persons Born and Naturalized? The 14th Amendment has brought about a national debate over the rights of African-Americans in the context of education and American schooling as well as the issue of African-American suffrage.

Historians largely regard Reconstruction as a failure -- Southerners often rejected programs and measures intended to aid in their post-war economic and social recovery efforts. Southerners and Democrats often acted against Republican and Northern policies meant to recover Southern economic stability and to advance African-American rights (e.g. through Jim Crow laws). One major success of the Reconstruction period, however, was the 14th Amendment, which defined citizens and protected all American citizens under the law. Other federal implementations, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Freedman’s Bureau, increased the involvement and participation of African-Americans in the government, economy, and society. One might ask: from the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century, what major controversies and political conversations have stemmed from national debate over the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause” for “all persons born and naturalized” in the United States? Multiple court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, brought about a national debate rising from the passing of the 14th Amendment over the rights of African-Americans in the context of education and American schooling as well as the issue of African-American suffrage. In addition, the conversations introduced by the 14th Amendment led to new legislation that advanced the rights of African-Americans and other minority groups, including the Civil Rights Act of 1865.

As noted, one of the most successful aspects of Reconstruction was the 14th Amendment, which provided “equal protection under the law” to “all persons born and naturalized” in the United States. Not only was this initial landmark amendment ratified, but it was enforced through further legislation under President Grant: namely the Enforcement Acts, three bills passed between 1870 and 1871 that protected the African-American right to vote, hold public office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection under the law. In addition, the Enforcement Acts allowed the federal government to intervene should a state not protect the aforementioned rights. The threat to the lives of former slaves, as well as to their social and economic well-being, led to the development and passing of the Enforcement Acts under President Grant.

The Klu Klux Klan Act (the Second Enforcement Act)

One notable cause for the ultimate failure of Reconstruction as an effort by the North to aid in the recovery effort of the South’s economic and social position was the Southern backlash against this Northern support. Several Southern state legislatures passed black codes, for example -- specifically, one instance of such a law was the Mississippi Black Code that attempted to reinstitute slavery in a quiet fashion. The first such body of law, which could likely be considered the most harsh, was passed in Mississippi in November 1865. One might argue that the changing status of African-Americans was the focal point of Reconstruction -- and while slavery had been officially and federally abolished by the 13th Amendment, many Southerners were determined to keep the African-American population confined within the same social, political, and economic boundaries that it had suffered under when slavery had been legal.

This cartoon depicts the socio-political and economic state of much of the African-American population throughout the era of Reconstruction. Oppressive Black Codes and white supremacist groups made the freedman experience more unbearable than that of being under the yoke of slavery.

Legislation and court cases through the late 19th and 20th centuries largely stemming from political conversations initiated by the passing of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause for “all persons born and naturalized” changed the American perspective about civil rights, especially those pertaining to equal opportunities to receive an education and exercise one’s right to vote. For example, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy vs. Ferguson “has no place… in the field of public education.” While defenders of segregation still attacked the court’s decision, it is interesting to note that then-Chief Justice Warren conceded that the Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to outlaw racial segregation in public schools. The decision made as a result of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 brought about the “equality revolution” that the Fourteenth Amendment began in 1868. But while Brown did establish a legal requirement that states end their segregated systems of public education, it was not until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that the South began to experience de facto change in schools’ racial compositions. In the area of suffrage for African-Americans, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to overcome state and local legal barriers that prevented African-Americans from voting.

President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aimed to overcome state and local legal barriers that prevented African-Americans from voting.

From the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century, major controversies and political conversations have stemmed from national debate over the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause” for “all persons born and naturalized” in the United States. Segregation of schools, as well as limitations on African-American voting rights, have all been issues that have been dealt with through legislations and at the nation’s highest court. Landmark cases have led the United States through varied approaches to education and suffrage that ultimately have led to desegregation in the former and universal voting rights with regard to the latter. While in some cases, the legislation passed and the court decisions that have stemmed from the evolving debate over the 14th amendment has been criticized for exemplifying instances of the government abusing its power over state and local governments, even overstepping into areas it has no place in, ultimately these decisions have led the United States on the path towards educational equality and equal opportunity for all to exercise their right to vote. The debate over these two issues pertaining to civil rights have, in large part, stemmed from conversations over the “equal protection clause” in the 14th amendment -- and the discussion continues today over civil rights in these areas. Has America truly reached a state of de facto equality for African-Americans in education and suffrage?

Notably, in relatively recent history, Virginia’s public schools have protested against desegregation.”Massive resistance,” was declared by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. of Virginia as a strategy to unite white politicians and other white leaders behind new state legislation and policies to prevent the desegregation of public schools. In fact, multiple schools and even an entire school system were shut down in 1958-1959 in the wake of attempts to block integration. These policies were then declared unconstitutional by Federal District judges for Virginia’s Eastern District. While state and federal courts did ultimately overturn many of the laws that were a part of the “massive resistance” strategy, certain aspects of the campaign against the desegregation of public schools continued in Virginia for numerous years.

While some historians may argue that Reconstruction was a failed attempt to grant freed African-Americans advancements in their civil rights as new American citizens under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, while it is true that African-Americans may not have seen these rights during the Reconstruction era, it is a fact that the 14th amendment, instituted during Reconstruction, instigated a long-term national debate over civil rights and “equal protection under the law” that ultimately led to the installation of policies in the last century that have in fact strengthened and advanced African-American rights.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Works Cited

Legal Information Institute. "14th Amendment." LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.

Library of Congress, and Middle Tennessee State University. "Primary Source Set: The Legacy of the Fourteenth Amendment." (n.d.): n. pag. Library of Congress: Teaching With Primary Sources. Library of Congress. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <http://library.mtsu.edu/tps/sets/Primary_Source_Set--Legacy_of_Fourteenth_Amendment.pdf>.

Library Of Congress. "Primary Documents in American History." 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/14thamendment.html>.

Newman, Roger K. The Constitution and Its Amendments. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1999. Print.

OurDocuments.gov. "14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Civil Rights (1868)." Our Documents - 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Civil Rights (1868). OurDocuments.gov, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=43>.

Sage, Jud. "Mississippi Black Code." Chn.gmu.edu. Northern Virginia Community College, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/122/recon/code.html>.

VHS. "Massive Resistance." Massive Resistance | Virginia Historical Society. Virginia Historical Society, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2017. <http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/massive>.

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.