July 9 marks the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting American citizenship to former Black slaves following the Civil War.
The 14th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction Amendments, was adopted on July 9, 1868, after being bitterly opposed by states that were former members of the Confederacy. The states were forced to ratify the amendment to regain representation in Congress.
The amendment’s Citizenship Clause nullified the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision concerning Dred Scott v. Sanford, which the court ruled that Americans who descended from African slaves could not be United States citizens.
The Amendment also prohibits states from denying persons equal protection of the laws or depriving them of life, liberty or property without due process of the law. The first section of the Amendment is the most-litigated forming the basis of U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as 1954’s Brown v Board of Education and Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The Reconstruction Amendments are the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. They were adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 15th Amendment made it illegal to deny individuals the right to vote because of their race.
In the South, the 14th Amendment made one of its biggest legal impacts.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan in cahoots with a sheriff’s deputy shot to death civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner and buried their bodies in an earthen dam in Nashoba County, Mississippi. The murders occurred in 1964. While the FBI hunted for Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, they found the remains of eight other Black men who the Ku Klux Klan had murdered. Only two of the Black men were identified.
U.S. District Court Judge William Harold Cox, a known segregationist, who sat on the court in the Southern District of Mississippi, dismissed 241 charges against the 18 alleged killers. Cox, who was appointed a federal judge by President John F. Kennedy, ruled that Sections 241 (conspiracy against rights) and 242 (deprivation under color of law) of the federal code were enacted to protect federal rights not the rights given by states to their citizens.
The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In majority opinion written by Associate Justice Abe Fortas, he ruled that the indictment against the mob must stand because they denied Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney due process guaranteed under 14th Amendment.
A jury found eight members of Ku Klux Klan guilty of the murders.
This was the first case in which whites who participated in what the law described as a lynching were convicted and sentenced to prison.