The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted on July 28, 1868, played an important role in setting legal precedents for equality after the Civil War. The most radically worded of the Reconstruction Amendments, it was intended by its post–Civil War Radical Republican sponsors to stop the efforts by the former Confederate states to nullify emancipation. Its language promotes “liberty” and “equal protection of the laws.” New York was the seventh state to ratify the Amendment, in January of 1867.
While all of America was profoundly shaped by the Fourteenth Amendment, it has in some ways a special and particularly resonant relationship to Greenwich Village, having been cited in trials and decisions with deep roots in our neighborhood. Here are five important instances when the Fourteenth Amendment was used to make profound change, and their Village connections:
1873 – Trial of Susan B. Anthony
Charged with “unlawfully” voting in the national election the previous November, Suffragist Susan B. Anthony argued at her trial that women have a constitutional right to vote. Central to her argument was that that the citizenship and privileges or immunities provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment effectively extended the right to vote to women. Anthony was, however, found guilty and given a $100 fine, of which she paid “not a penny.” She used the trial to promote women’s right to vote, which was passed in New York State with the help and activism of Villager Victoria Woodhull – the first woman to run for president, who testified before the House Judiciary Committee for the right of women to vote. Other noted compatriots of Susan B. Anthony were Villagers Crystal Eastman, Julia Ward Howe, and Clara Lemlich. Women’s Suffrage would not be enshrined in the Constitution until the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
1954 – Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
Villager and ACLU co-founder Arthur Garfield Hays wrote and filed the ACLU’s brief in support of the plaintiffs in this landmark case, which was decided just months before he died. The decision marked the end of legal segregation in the United States. Hays used the Fourteenth Amendment to undermine the legal basis for segregation, and the Court ultimately agreed, deciding that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Inherently unequal violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling overturned the Court’s previous case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which is known as the “separate but equal” case, and forced desegregation.
1964 – Civil Rights Act
John F. Kennedy was still fighting to pass “The Bill of the Century,” which banned racial segregation in public accommodations and the workplace, when he was assassinated in 1963. His successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, advocated for the Act in Kennedy’s memory. Many leaders featured on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map played important roles in finally bringing this law to fruition.
John F. Kennedy ’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, worked at the Department of Justice at the time, and he cited a turning point in his attitude toward the Civil Rights Movement resulting from a seminal meeting with two of the Village’s most prominent voices on the African-American Civil Rights Movement: James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. Also critical was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington (most famous for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech), Bayard Rustin, whose time in the Village is well documented.
1973 – Roe v. Wade
The court used the Fourteenth Amendment to legalize abortion in the United States. In Roe v. Wade, the court said Americans had a “right to privacy” under the fourteenth amendment, and that Jane Roe’s right to privacy was violated by the Texas statute that banned abortions except to save the life of the mother. Women had been traveling to New York for abortions for years before that, since 1970, when New York legalized the procedure.
Betty Friedan, second-wave feminist and author of the famed Feminine Mystique co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws–NARAL. Friedan lived in Greenwich Village for a number of years, while she worked for a labor newspaper. Friedan joined forces with Villager Bella Abzug, congresswoman and leader of the Women’s movement, who lived at 2 Fifth Avenue in the Village. Together with Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, Friedan and Abzug founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. These women and their organizations, along with so many others, took to the streets and to politics to make Roe v. Wade a reality. Along with Village-based Planned Parenthood of New York City and others, they continue to protect this important decision.
2015 – Obergefell v. Hodges
The Fourteenth Amendment’s use in legalizing gay marriage has roots in the Village going back to before the Stonewall Riots when LGBTQ folks came to the Village for the community, arts, and more. Two years before the Obergefell case, United States v. Windsor paved the way; the Supreme Court ruled that restricting federal interpretation of “marriage” to only opposite-sex unions is unconstitutional. Edie Windsor, who brought the case before the court, lived at 2 Fifth Avenue (same building as Bella Abzug!). Two years later, the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, based on the Fourteenth Amendment, found that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. And on June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states.
Civil Rights and Social Justice in the Village
In addition to the figures and events outlined in this post, GVSHP has compiled a map of sites of significance in the history of civil rights and social justice movements in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. View it at www.gvshp.org/civilrightsmap. The map is updated regularly and if you know any sites that should be included, feel free to email it, along with any information (and sources!) to firstname.lastname@example.org.