If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection

The 14th Amendment protects civil rights, stating all born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens. It prevents states from denying life, liberty, or property without due process (Due Process Clause) and ensures equal protection of laws (Equal Protection Clause). It's been pivotal in civil rights movements and legal cases.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] Many parts of the United States Constitution deal with rights of an individual, and many amendments talk about protecting or expanding the rights of an individual, but the 14th Amendment is perhaps one of the most important amendments in this discussion of protecting civil rights. And, in particular, Section 1 is the part that is most cited. So, let's just read this together. "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, "are citizens of the United States "and of the state wherein they reside. "No state shall make or enforce any law "which shall abridge the privileges "or immunities of citizens of the United States, "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, "liberty, or property, without due process of law, "nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws." So, let's just focus in on parts of it. So, one big takeaway about the 14th Amendment, this is the federal government saying, "Hey, these are things that the state cannot do." So, for example, when it says, "Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, "liberty, or property, without due process of law," this is a restatement of the 5th Amendment, that, "Hey, you know, people can't just stick you "in jail or take away your property without you going "through some type of a process, a legal process." Well, in the 5th Amendment, this was really talking about the federal government not being able to just take your property or your liberty away from you without the process of law, but here, it's saying, "Nor shall any state." And this clause right over here, this is known as the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Then, right after that, it says, "Nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws. "The equal protection of the laws," I'm gonna underline that. And this, you might guess is called the equal protection clause. Now, the context in which the 14th Amendment was ratified, it happens in 1868, shortly after the end of the Civil War. You, of course, have the 13th Amendment that, among other things, abolishes slavery, but then, you have these things in the south called black codes, which continue to repress the rights of African-Americans, and that's why Congress felt the need for the 14th Amendment to be passed. Now, one of the most notable cases in which the 14th Amendment was brought up happens in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, and we have a whole video about this. And this is a case in which it was argued that is was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment for African-Americans to have to travel in a separate train car from white Americans, and the Supreme Court infamously said that, "Hey, as long as it is equal, "it is okay for it to be separate "and that it would not violate the 14th Amendment," and so, this idea of separate but equal comes about. Now, that was significantly challenged as we go into 1954, where you have Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Board of Education. And here, the argument was that, inherently, separate could not be equal, and once again, the 14th Amendment was invoked. And this time, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that, yes, separate can't be equal, and that the schools needed to be desegregated. So, even though it wasn't an official overruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, it was a functional overruling of this doctrine of separate but equal. And, as we go into the 1960s civil rights movement, led by folks like Martin Luther King, it was the 14th Amendment that was cited often. In another video, we're going to look at Martin Luther King's letter from a Birmingham jail, in which he articulates the ideas of the civil rights movement, it's a quite moving letter. But, once again, it's evoking these ideas of the 14th Amendment, and it goes onto movements as disparate as the women's rights movement, led by organizations like the National Organization for Women, citing equal protection of the laws in situations of sexual discrimination in the workplace. You have pro-life groups citing the 14th Amendment, arguing that an unborn fetus' right to life is protected by the 14th Amendment. You have rulings around whether quotas in higher education are legal or not, once again, citing ideas of equal protection of the laws. So, as you go forth in your study of United States government, the 14th Amendment, especially Section 1, is going to keep showing up.