Op-Ed

Honor 150th anniversary of 14th Amendment

National Civil Rights Museum

After having fought a civil war, on July 9, 1868, these United States of America took action to eradicate the moral indignation and the despicable practice of slavery in which people of color, human beings were subjected to unspeakable maltreatment.

The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted by Congress on June 13, 1866 and ratified by state legislatures in three-fourths of the several states by July 9, 1868 (and by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1976).

We should commemorate this 150th anniversary through civic engagement and programs to educate the public and reaffirm the original intent and purpose of the 14th Amendment, including the provisions regarding birthright citizenship and equality before the law. The amendment served as the foundation of change for the newly freed slaves and continues to this date to protect, through great struggles, the rights and privileges of all U.S. citizens.

It abrogated the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which held that freed slaves and those of African descent were not U.S. citizens entitled to the rights enjoyed by U.S. citizens. It also eviscerated the “Three-Fifths Compromise” provision of the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment granted full citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves. It prohibited states from making or enforcing laws that abridge the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens and commanded that states shall neither deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law nor deny any person equal protection of the law.

It gave to Congress the power to enforce the civil rights afforded to all Americans in the Constitution, including former slaves. It made sure that the states guaranteed all people born or naturalized in the U.S. the rights provided in the Bill of Rights.

The 14th Amendment changed the Constitution from a document which allowed slavery into a guiding light for freedom, democracy and equality. It is the legal basis for countless Supreme Court decisions protecting civil rights:

▪ The right to vote.

▪ The right to an equal education.

▪ The right not to be discriminated against in employment.

▪ The right to equal and fair housing.

▪ The right to equal pay.

▪ The right to marry the person of your choice.

▪ The right of a woman’s choice over her body.

The 14th Amendment is the most litigated provision in the Constitution and in American history. Recent examples include the Voting Rights Act in which the pre-clearance provision for changes in voting laws in states, districts and counties with histories of voter suppression, intimidation and discrimination was stricken; the allowance of voting to proceed this year in states where trial courts had found discriminatory purpose, intent and impact in laws drawn with precision to curtail and/or to suppress the vote; and the allowance of the systematic purging of voter rolls for a variety reasons, none related to the death of the voter.

Its ratification has special meaning as it sets forth those indelible rights that were obtained by struggles of so many who were trying to make this a better America by making it a more inclusive nation.

In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in noting the effect of the 14th Amendment: “While the Union survived the Civil War, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment … guaranteeing equal protection of the laws.”

Raymond M. Burse is general counsel for the Kentucky Conference of NAACP Branches and the Louisville Branch NAACP. He served twice as the president of Kentucky State University.

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