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Interpretation and Enforcement Gutting 14th Amendment

civil rights march protest

Selma to Montgomery (photo: Library of Congress)

While today the right wing is making a great noise about repealing the 14th Amendment, it was rather discouraging to listen to a panel of experts on civil rights discussing the ways that the application of those rights has been essentially emptied by courts already. The panel was put together by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 40th annual legislative conference and occurred Friday, September 17th. A history of denying citizenship to non-European members of the American community has been long experienced by black people, and scholars among them have a long record of working to eliminate the many barriers to full participation.

The panel consisted of several remarkable students of our constitution, many with knowledge accumulated by generations going back to early days in civil rights action. Through many years of work, the record has become well documented, coming to the present day of courtroom procedure that has made it impossible to establish discriminatory practices when the issue is one of ‘intent’, not action. Actual intent has become the standard, rather than discrimination’s effects. Of course, the intent of an action is practically impossible to prove. As Howard President Kurt Schmoke points out (at 32:07ff), no conviction can be reached in present day court practice, which effectively guts the act itself.

Another failure in the original 14th Amendment as written, is that states received the right to disenfranchise anyone who had (30:29ff) taken up arms against the government ‘or other crimes’, which had been used for the elimination of large numbers of voters by the states for many decades. Of course, the population of those who have criminal history is overweighted by those in trouble for small crimes in the black community. Some progress is being made, but a vast section of the black population has been removed from voter rolls while the amount of crimes goes down though the prison population swells. . . .

In the end, members of the panel agreed that while the actual record of discriminatory practices is not meeting with sufficient enforcement, there would be some improvement in extending existing law to include the concept of human rights, rather than simply civil rights. The U.S. is a signatory to the U.N. Human Rights Resolution (1:21ff), which establishes precedent for treating all of us with dignity. The extension of rights to good lives to all of us would give more stability to the society as a whole.

Panelists made a plea to all of us who care to keep up the pressure, and lend support to our world by – most especially – continuing to vote for leaders who keep striving to bring rights into actual existence over years of resistance.


Author: Ruth Calvo, 66 and retired, is a longtime political activist for progressive causes and writer as well as a daily editor here at The Seminal. She worked in the office of TX. Senator Ralph Yarborough after graduation from Wellesley College in the 60’s, served on the Council on the Arts after receiving their award for playwriting, managed some political campaigns in Maryland, and served several years as assistant to Maryland House of Delegates member Delegate Gene Counihan.

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.