The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments

U.S. constitution

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments
Civil rights are vital rights and privileges that, when obstructed by another, lead to legal ramifications (cornell law, n.d.). They ensure every individual’s protection from discrimination based on characteristics like race, gender, religion, age, physical limitations, nationality, and in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation. Often, there’s confusion between civil rights and civil liberties. While civil rights are rooted in equality and entail legal safeguards—such as the right to vote—civil liberties represent personal freedoms shielded from government interference, like the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech (cornell law, n.d.).

The Reconstruction Era after the U.S. Civil War marked a pivotal moment for civil rights, especially for formerly enslaved African-Americans. During this period, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments—were instituted. The Thirteenth banned forced labor, the Fourteenth prevented states from infringing upon citizens’ privileges or rights and ensured every person’s right to due process and equal protection, and the Fifteenth safeguarded citizens from being denied voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (cornell law, n.d.).

To further bolster these amendments, several statutes were enacted during the Reconstruction Era, such as the Equal Rights Under the Law (42 U.S.C. § 1981), which combats racial discrimination in various legal situations. Several other anti-discrimination statutes from this period remain effective today (cornell law, n.d.).

A significant piece of legislation in the context of civil rights is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act, anchored in the U.S.’s power to oversee interstate commerce, curtailed discrimination in public establishments based on attributes like race, color, religion, or nationality. Additionally, it laid the groundwork for desegregating public educational institutions and combating employment discrimination (cornell law, n.d.).

The courts, notably the Supreme Court, play a crucial role in determining civil rights’ reach. They have been instrumental in managing and directing programs like school desegregation aimed at addressing discrimination.

Furthermore, the U.S. ratified the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, abolishing poll taxes, which had historically obstructed many, especially minorities, from exercising their right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 further emphasized the importance of enfranchisement, stating that citizens should be able to vote without any barriers related to race, color, or past servitude (cornell law, n.d.).

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, strengthened housing discrimination protections. Subsequent laws, like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, extended these protections to those with disabilities. The Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995 did the same for senior citizens (cornell law, n.d.).

Beyond federal laws, states like New York have taken additional measures to bolster civil rights through legislations like the New York State Human Rights Law. Globally, various treaties and declarations acknowledge human rights, with the U.S. being a signatory to agreements like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

However, the issue of disenfranchisement, especially related to felons, remains contentious. Though the Supreme Court in Richardson v. Ramirez upheld states’ rights to deny voting to felons post-incarceration, the practices vary across states. For instance, Vermont and Maine allow felons to vote, while states like Virginia and Kentucky are more restrictive. The majority of states lie somewhere in between, having their unique felon disenfranchisement regulations (cornell law, n.d.).

To illustrate, Florida has anchored its felon disenfranchisement rule within its constitution, necessitating a constitutional amendment for any alterations (cornell law, n.d.).

Cornell Law School. (n.d.). Civil Rights. Retrieved from