What You Need to Know About… The 14th Amendment’s Promise of Equality

“No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”


No part of the U.S. Constitution has meant more for the cause of equality than the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. From Brown v. Board of Education to the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the provision has been central to ensuring equal treatment under the law since the amendment’s ratification in 1868.


Despite its grand promise, the guarantee of equal protection of the laws met fierce resistance in the wake of Reconstruction. Southern states, rebelling against their new obligation to treat everyone equally, enacted Jim Crow statutes meant to keep the races separate while paying lip-service to “equal” accommodations — in education, public spaces, and others spheres of daily life. Initially, not even the Supreme Court was able to see through this inherently unequal regime: it took nearly 60 years for the justices to recognize in Brown — litigated by LDF founder, Thurgood Marshall — that a system of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.


Since that pronouncement, courts have developed a body of case law applying the Equal Protection Clause to government actions that discriminate or treat people differently on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and other categories. But as Justice Thurgood Marshall acknowledged in 1968, the only way for the language of the Constitution’s promise of equality to mean something is to have an informed citizenry that knows the promise exists. “The Fourteenth Amendment and its grand ideal of equality under the law have meant no more than succeeding generations were willing for them to mean,” he said.