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14th Amendment and Equal Rights: What Does It Mean?

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 3/11/2015

Every day we operate under an expectation of rights. Yes, you and I included. These advantages are spelled out in something called The Bill of Rights.

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    It’s an important document—written by James Madison—that grants us power and protection, more than what’s given in the Constitution, another important document that says we, the people, have a democratic system of governing our country.

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    Constitutional Principles

    United States Constitution Basically the Constitution is called a “living and breathing” document because it changes in interpretation as the times change. It is administered by the government, the people we elect by vote to use it, and it dictates how the country should be run.

    The Founding Fathers pulled a fast one though. They wrote the Constitution in general terms so thoughtful men might find argument with what it meant. Basically it says that there will be laws, that the representatives who serve the three branches of the government—the executive (president), the legislative (Congress) and the judicial (Supreme Court)—all have to confer with each other so no one branch gets more powerful than the other.

    When one of the three branches of government wants to change something in the federal and state governments, it's meeting time. The Constitution then is a paper that makes all important decisions, flexible.

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    Change in the Constitution

    An example of the Constitution’s flexibility is this: In 1896, there was a Supreme Court case called Plessy versus (v.) Ferguson. It was about racial segregation and the court decided it was constitutional (or legal) to separate facilities for whites from what was available to blacks. Then decades later, in 1954, in another case named Brown v. Board of Education, the Court decided the opposite: that segregation was not lawful and thus, unconstitutional.

    Early on during the formation of our Constitution, people saw the holes in the document. There needed to be something that: protected the minorities from the majority, and protected the individual from the government. Hence, the Bill of Rights came into being.

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    What’s in The Bill of Rights?

    James Madison, First Author of the Bill of Rights This document with ten points was set up to protect people in general, adult citizens, from its government. What? Isn’t our government a good thing? It’s a wonderful thing except when it forgets these promises:

    1. Freedom of speech

    2. Freedom to bear arms

    3. Peaceful soldiering limits

    4. Security in your person, rights, house, papers and effects

    5. Indictment by grand jury for capital crimes and double jeopardy

    6. Right to a speedy trial, fair witnesses and an informed nature

    7. Right of trial by jury

    8. Excessive bail or punishments protections

    9. The Constitution cannot be used to deny or disparage others

    10. Powers of the states kept in check

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    Equal Rights

    In 1791 when the Bill of Rights was adopted, people weren’t equal. Most African-Americans were slaves, women were second-class citizens and the people who had wealth exercised more power over the poor. The Bill of Rights then tried to ameliorate—to reorganize and improve—that situation.

    Now an important right we are talking about today is highly regarded for its equal rights leanings. It’s the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

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    Background on the Meaning of the 14th Amendment

    The Fourteenth Amendment has some sections that spell out what it’s all about and there are certain phases like “equal protection of laws”; and there were a variety of court cases that make valid points possible.

    Some of the court cases that relied on the Fourteenth Amendment were about racial discrimination, reproductive rights (having a child), election recounts, gender discrimination, and racial quotas in school—areas that address many aspects and rights of U.S. citizens.

    The key or main words that may make this clearer are: “…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.”

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    Basics of the Court Cases

    Plessy v. Ferguson

    Plessy v. Ferguson is the story of a black man sitting in the white section of a train. In 1892, 30-year old Homer Plessy wound up in jail for bucking the East Louisiana Railroad. He was required to ride in the “Colored” car (as African Americans were referred to then). Louisiana had passed the Separate Car Act to legally segregate passengers—keep certain groups apart—who rode common carriers of transportation.

    An organization challenged the law but the Supreme Court said that “separate but equal” accommodations were fair. Then everything, restaurants, public schools, theaters and bathrooms—even drinking fountains—became separate, one for “colored” and one for whites. The court said since the act applies equally to blacks and to whites, and requires equal accommodations for both, it is not discriminatory and does not violate the 14th Amendment.

    It wasn’t until 1954, that this doctrine was challenged again, in a case called Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka).

    Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel in the landmark Fourteenth Amendment decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) According to the United States Courts, “In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified and finally put an end to slavery. Moreover, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) strengthened the legal rights of newly freed slaves by stating, among other things, that no state shall deprive anyone of either ‘due process of law’ or of the ‘equal protection of the law.’”

    In this landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, the “separate but equal” doctrine would finally be struck down. The main issue in this case (and several others bundled together) was the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools. The case finally ended mandatory segregation in public schools.

    Other cases under the 14th Amendment:

    Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada: That Gaines, a black man, could go to law school with whites because there was no option of equal value available for black students.

    Shelley v. Kraemer: That minorities cannot be kept from owning property in a neighborhood with a racially restrictive covenant (agreement).

    Sweatt v. Painter: That a Texas law school cannot keep a black man from attending because there was no alternative black law school of equal opportunity.

    Roe v. Wade: That a woman’s right to abortion was entwined with the 14th Amendment’s right to privacy; the decision gave a woman total autonomy over her pregnancy during the first trimester.

    The 14th Amendment cases are interesting reading and important to our system of justice and fairness for all people, no matter their race, sex, age, religion, position in life, or holdings.