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Social movements and equal protection: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the influence of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause on social movements advancing civil rights.
Movements for civil rights and social equality for African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, and other groups have based their challenges to discriminatory practices on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
civil rightsRights of individuals against discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, sex, ability, sexual orientation, age, or pregnancy.
Civil Rights Act of 1964Legislation passed by Congress prohibiting segregation of public facilities, as well as discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. The Civil Rights Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce these provisions.
Civil Rights Movement (1960s)A movement, led by both grassroots and national civil rights organizations, to end segregation and other forms of discrimination against African American citizens.
due process clauseA clause of the Fourteenth Amendment stipulating that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” This clause aims to ensure that neither states nor the federal government infringe upon the rights of individuals without following proper legal procedures.
equal protection clauseA clause of the Fourteenth Amendment stipulating that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The equal protection clause has served as the basis for most legal challenges to discrimination.
LGBTQ movementA civil rights movement which emerged in the 1970s, dedicated to combating legal restrictions on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, and queer citizens on the basis of Fourteenth Amendment protections. Note that some advocate for using alternative acronyms, such as LGBTQIA+ and GSRM.
National Organization for Women (NOW)An organization founded in 1960 with the goal of advancing the rights of women through legislative and legal challenges to sex discrimination.
pro-life (anti-abortion) movementA movement opposed to abortion, led by the National Right to Life Committee, which argues that Fourteenth Amendment protections begin at conception.

People to know

Betty FriedanAuthor of The Feminine Mystique, a 1963 book that raised concerns about the status of women in society and fueled the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women.
Martin Luther King, Jr.Civil rights activist and religious leader whose nonviolent protests helped bring about desegregation and equal protection legislation for African Americans. He delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Thurgood MarshallFounder and first executive director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which pursued a strategy of legal challenges to segregation on the basis of the equal protection clause. Marshall successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and later became the first African American Supreme Court justice.

Important documents

Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) — Written by Martin Luther King, Jr., while detained in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell for protesting segregation, this open letter to members of the clergy was published in newspapers throughout the United States. The letter critiqued the idea that civil rights demonstrators should wait until a later time to pursue racial justice and that it was immoral for protesters to break the law. King argued that there are two types of laws—justs laws and unjust laws— and that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Quote to know: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
The Fourteenth Amendment — The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1868 in response to ongoing discrimination against African Americans in southern states after the Civil War. This amendment incorporated elements of the Bill of Rights, which originally applied only to the actions of the federal government, into the states by barring state governments from infringing upon the rights of citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment also declared that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” effectively overturning the 1857 ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford that black people were not citizens of the United States.

Review questions

How have constitutional provisions supported and motivated social movements in the United States?
How does the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of individual liberties relate to the protections set forth in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution)?

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