The Constitution was originally written as a very exclusive document. Its rights were intended for white male citizens. In Section 3 of Article 1, the Constitution explains how the number of representatives per state to the House of Representatives would be determined. In calculating the number of people in that state, Indians were excluded and “all other persons, “ meaning non-white men and indentured servants, counted as three fifths of a person. In Section 2 of this same article, it is very clear that non-white males could never aspire to a place in the U.S. government as one must “been seven years a citizen of the United States.” As African-Americans were denied citizenship, they were automatically excluded from any governmental office.
Slavery was upheld in the Constitution. In Article IV, Section 3, it reads, “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” Although this article did not pertain exclusively to African-American slavery, it was used to uphold the legality of it and the return of runaway slaves and indentured servants to their “owners. “
Until the year 1865, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery was legal in many states. Section 1 of this amendment outlawed slavery, while Section 2 gave Congress the power to enforce the former with legislation. The Thirteenth Amendment reads, “Neither slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
In 1868, citizenship was granted to non-white Americans. Prior to this amendment, only whites were deemed citizens of this country. The Fourteenth Amendment reads as follows: “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 any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Although the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution served to redress maltreatment and denial of basic rights to non-white Americans, African-Americans were denied the right to vote. It was not until the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, that Blacks were constitutionally granted that right. The Fifteenth Amendment reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although voting rights existed for African-Americans as a result of this amendment, various states prohibited blacks from voting by the use of “laws or clauses” that would ensure their ineligibility. The “Grandfather Clause” was used in some states. One could not vote if his grandfather was not allowed to vote. Because African-Americans were not deemed citizens prior to 1868, they were not allowed to vote. Since the pre-Fifteenth Amendment African-American was denied voting rights, so was his post-Fifteenth Amendment grandson. Some states used strict guidelines that required uneducated or under-educated Blacks to read lengthy statements loaded with words they were unable to read. Often the very Constitution that afforded them this voting right, was used as a measurement of their eligibility to vote. If they could not read it without error, they were not allowed to vote.
One may argue that the Constitution of The United States was a racial exclusive document, while others may see it to be inclusive, but narrowly interpreted by racist people. The amendments that followed sought to grant citizenship to those previously denied it, and equal protection to all. Students will learn from the following cases that many laws were written by men with strong racial prejudices. Many of the laws that supported segregation, were written with the comfort of the majority group in mind. Because of the master-slave relationship that existed for centuries, people had to learn to put away feelings of superiority and inferiority. These feelings accompanied by segregation, prohibited people from learning about each other. In this unit, students will be forced to rethink the Black/White issue in America. Students will explore the changes in attitude of African-Americans as well as Whites. Students will learn that change only came when people of all races joined together to fight injustice. Students will explore the plight of Whites who participated in freedom marches, freedom rides and sit-ins. Students will learn that in the struggle for African-American freedom, whites died too. Students will be challenged to get inside the mind and heart of the courageous people, both Black and White, of that time.
Students will also be challenged to think through many legal issues. How does a Supreme Court Justice decide to overturn a lower court decision that is greatly supported by the majority group as in the Plessy case. Is affirmative action good for all, and should present day Whites pay for past discrimination as in the Bakke case? Are any laws flawless, and should constitutional rights ever be suspended for national security as in the Korematsu case? The aforementioned cases and others will present many legal dilemmas, and major decisions handed down by the Supreme Court.