I just finished watching this excellent six-part documentary series that tells the story of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US constitution. It is arguably the most important amendment as it has enabled great strides towards equality in the US. It was enacted in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 that freed all the salves in the south.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
It was the Thirteenth Amendment ratified in 1865 just after the Civil War ended that enshrined the abolition of slavery into the constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment was very brief and simply said:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868 and deals with many things. Hence the text is longer and it is Section 1 that is relevant to the ongoing struggle for equality. It was designed to put concrete legal protections into place by specifying in more detail the rights of all persons in the US. Section 1 states:
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.
I have emphasized the key terms. This amendment grants what is known as ‘birthright citizenship’, that anyone born in the US is automatically a citizen, something that anti-immigrants hate because it takes away from them the right to decide who can and cannot be a citizen. It is important to note that due process and equal protection of the laws applies to all persons, not just citizens. Over time, ‘equal protection’ has been a powerful driver in the effort to expand the scope of equality.
Each episode lasts one hour. It is hosted by Will Smith and it has academics describing the implications and actors voicing the words of key historical figures, interspersed with historical footage. It focuses on landmark legal cases and shows that the path to progress is not linear, with steps that advance the cause of equality being met by those that promoted inequality. The first three episodes trace the path of the civil rights movement. The fourth looks at the struggle for gender equality, the fifth for LGBTQ equality, and the last for immigrants.
While I found all the episodes compelling to watch, I was most moved by the fifth. This may be because while the other episodes did tell compelling stories of the people involved in the struggle like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, the episodes tended to take a survey approach. In the fifth episode they dwelt at length on the story of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur’s marriage that was not recognized by the state of Ohio. Obergefell was the plaintiff in the case Obergefell v. Hodges where the US Supreme Court in 2015 struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.
It is astonishing that while we are generally aware of the very ugly history of racism in the US, starting with the horrendous crimes of genocide against Native Americans and slavery, there are still so many specific brutal episodes that have got buried that few are aware of. One was the Tulsa massacre of 1921. This series informed me of another episode that I was not aware of and that was the massacre of Chinese people in 1871. While I was generally aware of the discrimination against Chinese and the Chine Exclusion Act, this story was new to me.
Bigots and racists of all stripes hate the Fourteenth Amendment. Trump constantly railed against the granting of birthright citizenship. Alabama governor George Wallace attacked it while standing at the door of the University of Alabama in 1963 that had been ordered by a federal judge, following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed the doctrine of separate but equal, that the university had to admit two Black students Vivian Malone and James Hood. Wallace condemned the Fourteenth Amendment as ‘illegal’ and vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” He was forced to step aside when president Kennedy sent in the National Guard. The series shows that that encounter.
As Larry Wilmore says in the show, the Fourteenth Amendment is a promise made to the people in this country. The country has to make good on that promise.
A series that is well worth watching.
Here’s the trailer.