Amid the chaos of the current political moment, the July 9, 2018, sesquicentennial anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification must not be overlooked. By establishing birthright citizenship, this is one of most significant Reconstruction amendments. It affirmed African Americans as citizens following the 1857 Dred Scottdecision and Confederate defeat in 1865. It also reflects the past and present struggles of marginalized communities and their allies to hold the nation accountable to its democratic ideals. By highlighting how African Americans embraced a constitutional amendment during the Long Reconstruction era, some important lessons emerge for those living in the present.
The Fourteenth Amendment served as a tool of empowerment. Ratification showed African Americans across the nation that their struggle for full citizenship had not been in vain. Resistance and perseverance mattered. Upon its ratification, editors of The Elevator, a black San Francisco newspaper, proclaimed their intention to take their places as full American citizens. Of course the machinations of President Johnson, who initially threatened a veto, raised some concerns among the editorial staff and readership. And, the shadow of the 1857 Dred Scott decision loomed over the process in their minds. Would voters nationally approve this amendment guaranteeing birthright citizenship of African Americans?
Once the necessary number of states had confirmed ratification, however, the newspaper announced: “Notwithstanding the silly and unconstitutional action of the Democratic Legislatures of Ohio and New Jersey, in attempting to rescind the resolutions of preceding Legislatures confirming the Fourteenth Article of the Constitution of the United States, that article has been confirmed by the requisite number of States, and is now the law of the land.” Although unsure what “effect this amendment will have on the political status of the colored citizens of the loyal States,” the newspaper educated its readers by reprinting all five sections of the amendment. Thus, black Californians celebrated while preparing to claim and defend all of the rights there enshrined. Within the year, The Elevator called for a national colored convention that would challenge the exclusion of black voters from the 1868 Presidential election. The editors even endorsed a Nevada senator’s bill to enforce Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment as a “felony punishable by fine and imprisonment.”
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.