Past struggles over the meaning of citizenship speak to us today. The question of who is and is not an American (today we might use the term “real American”) has been and continues to be central to debates about how our government should behave and whom it should serve. Black leaders of the nineteenth century understood that while securing specific rights was an important part of their struggle for citizenship, and they celebrated the Fourteenth Amendment for this, they were also engaged in a larger struggle, a struggle to ensure that African Americans were understood and treated as truly American.
“And thou starry banner! Wave all thy folds in the glad, sweet air of June; flap out upon the breeze the music of liberty; such a luster shalt thou fling back to the sun of the coming Independence Day as he never, in ninety-two years, saw in thy stripes and stars before!” With these words the Christian Recorder, published in Philadelphia by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, celebrated Congress’s passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Just sixteen years earlier, Frederick Douglass had famously insisted, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” but now, for the first time in the eyes of many African Americans, their claims on the United States had been vindicated.
This is not to say that the amendment was without its black critics. Many black leaders were quick to point out its failures, especially its failure to secure black voting rights. Beyond this, as recent scholarship has emphasized, federal and even state government was often limited in its ability to enforce the liberal ideals enshrined in the Reconstruction amendments. African Americans understood this failing all too well. In light of these nineteenth- and twenty-first- century critics, perhaps rather than thinking of the Fourteenth Amendment as the culmination of the fight for black citizenship, we might more fruitfully think of it as a part of a much longer struggle to establish African Americans as Americans, a struggle that continues even today.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.