How Did Older Established Communities Of Free African – The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is one of the country’s most important laws regarding citizenship and civil rights. Ratified in 1868, three years after the abolition of slavery, the 14th Amendment served a revolutionary purpose – to define African Americans as equal citizens under the law. Although its promises were not always fulfilled, the 14th Amendment gave African Americans and other social groups a legal basis to fight discrimination, demand equal rights and protections, and effect change.
Blacks have been fighting for basic civil rights since the founding of the country. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White President,” The Atlantic, 2017
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The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, outlawed slavery in the United States. But they did not address other fundamental questions about the status of recently freed African Americans. Were they citizens? Did they have the same rights as other Americans? To address these issues, Congress enacted the 14th Amendment, which included important provisions regarding the definition of citizenship, the protection of civil rights, and the power of the federal government.
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All persons born in the United States or naturalized within its jurisdiction are citizens of the United States and of the state in which they reside.
Since the founding of the nation, African Americans have recognized themselves as citizens. When the US Constitution was adopted in 1788, it did not limit citizenship based on race. However, enslaved people were not considered full citizens of the state, but only 3/5 of the people.
Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson, sued to claim their freedom while Scott was enslaved on the grounds that they lived in a free land. Dred Scott appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court, which dismissed his appeal on the grounds that he was not a citizen and had no right to appeal in federal court. Delivering the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dred v. Scott. In 1857 in Sanford, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote, “[slaves and their descendants] were considered an inferior order for more than a century … they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”
Black people, whether free or slave, were not citizens, but had “the peculiar character of people.” The decision preserved the institution of slavery, which defined enslaved people as property, and upheld discriminatory laws that denied free blacks equal citizenship.
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The race clause of the 14th Amendment was specifically designed to be repealed by the Dred Scott decision. It established the principle of naturalization, meaning that a person born in the United States automatically becomes a citizen. This provision does not apply to Native Americans who were not legally declared US citizens before the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (pdf). Under the 14th Amendment, African Americans could now legally claim the constitutional rights afforded to all US citizens.
No state shall make or enforce any law abusing the modesty or chastity of citizens of the United States; nor shall any government unlawfully deprive any person of his life, liberty, or property; nor does it deny to every person the equal protection of the laws.
After slavery was abolished in 1865, southern states passed laws known as Black Codes that limited the civil rights of newly freed African Americans and forced them to work for their former slaves. African Americans organized conventions throughout the South to protest black laws and petition Congress for equal rights.
We want to be known as men; there is no obstacle in our way; the laws that govern the whites must govern the colored people; that we have the right to be tried by a jury of our peers; opening or establishing schools for our children; allow us and our children to buy a house; to be treated equally and fairly as other people. Address to the Convention of the Colored People of South Carolina, 1865
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In November 1865, the South Carolina State Convention of Colored People in Charleston issued a 54-foot petition signed by hundreds of men. The petitioners asked Congress to help ensure our “equal rights before the law” and “equal suffrage for all honest citizens.”
Read the transcript of the petition of the colored citizens of South Carolina for equality before the law and elective franchise, 1865:
To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives assembled. We, the colored citizens of South Carolina, respectfully petition your honorable authority in consideration of our unquestionable loyalty, and have expressed the same bond or will as soldiers or laborers; or within insurgents under insurgent control; That our equal rights under the law shall be preserved during the restoration of the civil government of South Carolina by the exercise of your superior power; – to have an equal vote with all honest citizens in creating and approving the basic law of the government; and that your honorable authority will not permit any State Constitution, which does not preserve to all honest citizens the exercise of the right of elective property, otherwise entitled to the ordinary laws of the United States, not distinguished by color—Without political advantage we have no means of securing our private rights and the blessings of our children.
The government needs our vote, to make the state loyal to the Union, and to conform its laws and government to the present cherished policy of the country, and we respectfully suggest that the constitution of South Carolina would have existed before, as we pray it will now, had not that state betrayed one-third of the United States.
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The 14th Amendment repealed the black laws and declared that governments could not pass laws that denied citizens their constitutional rights and liberties. No one can legally (justice in the judicial system) be deprived of life, liberty, property, the law must apply equally to everyone. This represents a major shift in power between the states and the federal government. For the first time, civil rights must be protected at the federal level, not state governments.
The 14th Amendment also contained provisions regarding voting and representation in Congress. It amended Article 3/5 of the constitution, stating that the number of people is determined according to the “population” of the state – all people are considered equal. It also retained the right to vote for “all male citizens over 21 years of age,” but it prohibited another amendment to the Constitution (the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870) to restrict voting based on race. Women could not secure the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Congress ratified the 14th Amendment on June 13, 1866 and sent it to the states for ratification. But changing the Constitution to fulfill the promise of equality for African Americans will not be an easy process. Slavery, which defined black people as property rather than citizens, had existed since the founding of the United States. For the 14th Amendment to become the new law of the land, it needs more than ratification—it needs reconstruction.
Twenty-two states ratified the 14th Amendment within a year of its ratification, making all 28 amendments part of the United States Constitution. But most white southern states that had passed black laws refused to ratify the amendment that would have defined African Americans as equal citizens. Black men and women who tried to exercise their rights and freedoms faced opposition, violence and retaliation from their white peers.
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On May 1, 1866, a white mob and police attacked a black community in Memphis, Tennessee. The first racial violence since the Civil War, the Memphis Massacre lasted three days and resulted in the deaths of 46 African Americans. A national outcry over the incident helped build support for the ratification of the 14th Amendment.
I was on my way to my mother’s house, and when I got to Brown Avenue and De Soto I met two men, one a police officer, the other I don’t know who; The police shot me in the head… After shooting me, he asked if I was a soldier. I said no. He said it was good that I wasn’t there and followed him. Taylor Hunt, 16, Witness to the Memphis Riots and Massacre, House Report No. 101, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., 1866.
Opposition to the 14th Amendment was not confined to the South. In northern and western states, the Democratic Party appealed to white voters who opposed the idea of equal rights for African Americans. Three states—Ohio, Oregon,
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