Fourteenth Amendment

Ratified by the states in 1868 shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted with multiple purposes in mind. First, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship and the promise of equality for Black Americans, many of whom were freed slaves. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment served as the centerpiece of legal challenges to achieve equity in many areas, beginning with school segregation, based on its Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. This entry reviews its history and legal application in the 20th century and beyond.

Historical Background

Members of the Republican Party introduced the Fourteenth Amendment after the conclusion of the Civil War to ensure that the admission of Confederate states back into the Union would be accompanied by a guarantee of equal rights for Blacks, especially freed slaves, in the South. In enacting the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress essentially reversed the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which held that since Blacks, even free Blacks, were not citizens, they were not entitled to constitutional guarantees.

Not long after the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted, the Supreme Court, bowing to social pressures, greatly limited its effect in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). These limitations would remain until well into the 20th century. In adopting a very narrow interpretation of the federal constitutional guarantees, especially of those rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court maintained that state laws were paramount over federal protections for rights and liberties. As such, the Court largely obviated the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment by granting states the authority to trump the federal Constitution.

In its infamous judgment in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court went so far as to offer its opinion that the State of Louisiana did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by requiring separate but equal public railroad accommodations for members of the different races. By extension, Plessy legitimized the pernicious doctrine of “separate but equal” in many areas of life, including schools, especially in the American South. The Court officially extended Plessy to schools in Gong Lum v. Rice (1927), when it upheld the exclusion of a student of Chinese origin from a school intended for White children.

Modern Court Rulings

After being unable to resolve the issue of school desegregation in 1953, the Supreme Court called for rearguments later that year that focused on the Fourteenth Amendment. In listening to arguments led by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Court addressed whether separate but equal schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In helping to eradicate racial segregation in state supported higher education, Marshall had successfully advanced the position that such schools did constitute a violation. In response to the question of whether “segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical Facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities,” the Court, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) explicitly answered “We believe that it does” (p. 493). As a result, the Brown Court concluded that state-mandated racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Further, on the same day as it handed down Brown, in Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), the Court vitiated segregation in the public schools in Washington, D.C., finding that the practice violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government.

Brown thus opened the door to an era of equal educational opportunities for all children, advanced under the Fourteenth Amendment in both the legislative and judicial arenas, by initiating the call for equal protection under the law for all students regardless of their race, gender, or physical (dis)abilities. Moreover, Brown’s reliance on the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment ushered in an era that has transformed American society in a myriad of areas, including public and nonpublic education, that the nation continues to experience to this day.

Paul Green

See also Bolling v. Sharpe; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Federal Role in Education

Further Readings

  • Bickel, A. (1986). The least dangerous branch: The Supreme Court at the bar of politics. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. 
  • Hall, K. L. (1992). The Oxford companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Kluger, R. (1975). Simple justice: The history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality. New York: Knopf. 

Legal Citations