Favorite 14th Amendment Ratified on this Date

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are collectively known as the reconstruction amendments. Of these, the 14th Amendment ratified on this date in 1868, continues to sustain the impact of the 13th which outlawed slavery and provides a robust framework for the enforcement of the 15th Amendment. Most consequential to passage of the 14th Amendment with its five sections is the revolutionary effect it sustains in protecting the rights of all citizens.


From the passage of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865 to its ratification, the 14th Amendment, the former Confederate states enacted overtly discriminatory laws meant to restrict both the rights and movement of the nation’s four million African Americans formerly held in bondage. Known as Black Codes, these laws had the effect of maintaining a huge supply of cheap labor to reestablish in effect the antebellum plantation system. Fearful of African American participation in democracy, whites used local law enforcement and terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to maintain what was in some states minority rule by whites. relying on racist traditions and the 1857 Dred Scott decision that held African Americans ineligible to be citizens, local and state governments in the South remained much as they were before the Confederate’s defeat.

By 1868, control of Reconstruction firmly in the hands of Congress, President Andrew Johnson having been repudiated for his handling of restoring the former Confederate states to a country that sacrificed roughly four hundred thousand lives. Led by Radical Republicans, the 14th Amendment was written in direct response to the Black Codes. It stipulated that those formerly held in bondage were citizens by birthright, (jus soli), and as such, are due equal protection under the law as well as due process.

While the final Reconstruction amendment, the 15th, quickly ratified in early 1870, specifically gave African Americans, (males only), the right to vote, enforcement of these revolutionary changes to our constitution effectively ceased in 1877 with the ignominious end of Reconstruction. After less than a dozen years, the federal government ceded to the states its new role in protecting the rights of individual citizens from abuses under the guise of states’ rights.  It would be nearly an entire century before the federal government reasserted that role.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

The 14th Amendment remains consequential today in that it began a process of conveying protections of the Bill of Rights to individual citizens as opposed to only states. As early as 1870, Jim Crow, which began to codify a segregated society, universally in the South, but widespread in many Northern states, flouted the very intent of the Reconstruction Amendments. Coinciding with the modern civil rights movement, legal challenges as well as landmark civil rights legislation at the federal level gained ground against Jim Crow, effectively mortally wounding him with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Still, Southern states continued to openly subvert the 15th Amendment with voter-suppression laws and practices. However, federal courts increased its use of a precept found within the 14th Amendment.

Known as the Incorporation Doctrine, Supreme Court cases have recognized the long history of states selectively denying their respective citizens of constitutionally guaranteed rights, most often targeting non-white populations. Citing the equal protection and due processes clauses of the 14th Amendment, federal courts have increasingly applied parts of most Bill of Rights Amendments to individuals when individual states were found to engage in behaviors denying those rights.

History as Prologue

With the general election only months away, the issues of voter suppression, election interference by foreign powers, and a growing lack of trust in the judiciary, the 14th Amendment may provide the legal mechanism for restoring faith in our constitutional form of government. Moreover, as it’s done for its fellow reconstruction amendments, it may sustain the renewed effort to provide for racial justice in our legal system.

Favorite East St. Louis Race Riot – 1917

The history of the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot intersects many themes. The Great War put an abrupt halt to immigrant labor from Europe while creating a new demand for African-American workers in America’s northern manufacturing cities.

War in Europe brings opportunity and conflict at home

First thousands and then tens of thousands of African-Americans left the sharecropper fields of the Jim Crow South for significantly better-paying jobs – and less discrimination – available in cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, Gary, and Philadelphia.
At the same time, the highly segregated American labor movement was on the ropes, business giants having gained the upper hand politically in the 1890s. Factory owners took full advantage of the circumstances, replacing white workers with eager blacks newly arrived from the South.
Big-city political machines also saw the wave of migrating African-Americans as a threat to their power and so used racial prejudice to stoke resentment among workers.

Background to a massacre

Follow heightened racial tensions in St. Louis during the last part of May, black residents of East St. Louis, (Illinois), were fired upon by whites in a black Model-T Ford, then nearly ubiquitous. Later that day, July 1, a similar Model-T with white men was mistaken for the shooters. Two white police officers investigating the earlier gunfire were mistakenly gunned down by residents of the African-American section of East St. Louis. Word of the killings spread and three days of violence began, claiming at least 39 African Americans, though contemporary accounts put the toll as at least 100.
It is estimated that between 1,000 to 3,000 whites crossed the bridge linking St. Louis, Missouri with East St. Louis and began hunting African-Americans. Many blacks fled the Illinois side, escaping across the bridge to the relative safety of the St. Louis. After the bridge was closed, however, some attempted to cross the nearly half-mile-wide Mississippi River which claimed lives to drowning.
Accounts of the time depict a police response that ranged from indifference to actual participation in hunting down African-Americans as an adjunct of the white mobs. On July 3, Illinois Militia, (forerunner of the National Guard), arrived in East St. Louis. Again, many of the all-white troops were reported to have joined in the carnage at first.

When order was more-or-less restored after three days of murder and destruction of black-owned businesses, many by fire, (the mob’s first act was to cut off access to water meant to fight fires), bodies of the dead littered the streets of East St. Louis.

Formal pleas to President Woodrow Wilson, asking for a formal investigation of the riot were met with claims that not enough evidence warranted an official response. In October, a trial was held in Illinois for twenty-five blacks and ten whites on charges ranging from murder to inciting a riot.

Silent responses

Most notable was the response from the New York City chapter of the nascent organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, formed less than a decade earlier in response to racial violence in Springfield, Illinois. More than ten thousand people participated in a Silent March through the city, drawing attention to the Wilson Administration’s failure to investigate the recent violence.
In spite of widespread condemnation of the wanton violence in East St. Louis, the next decade saw even more gruesome acts of racial violence, both large-scale and small against African-Americans. And until recently, the names of those pograms, (36 alone in 1919), Chicago, Elaine, Rosewood, Ocoee, and Washington, D.C., among many others, remained largely unknown, mostly untaught even at the post-secondary level.