“All men are created equal,” Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence, yet a few years later in the Constitution his fellow Founding Fathers designated slaves as three-fifths of a human being.
Which brings up a point. The genius of our Constitution, and the Founders who created it, is that they knew it was a far-from-perfect document, just as they were a far-from-perfect people. That is why they gave the Constitution the power to amend itself — to change for the better both the government and the country.
And as it happened, in the years since the Constitution was created, more amendments to it have dealt with “equality” than with any other issue. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th guaranteed equal protection under the law, the 15th guaranteed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and the 19th afforded the same right regardless of sex.
And then there is the 24th Amendment, which was ratified this week (Jan. 23) in 1964 as one answer to the attempts by many Southern states to circumvent federal law — and preserve inequality — by passing state laws that defied both the spirit and intent of federal law. For example, even though the right to vote was guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, several Southern states passed laws that imposed a variety of conditions on black Americans to deny them that right. One such condition was a poll tax, which black voters had to pay before they could enter the voting booth. Many Southerners defended the tax by saying that a property qualification (i.e. having enough wealth to be worthy of voting) was as old as America itself, but Civil Rights advocates countered that because the tax fell disproportionately on blacks, it violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
And so Congress passed the 24th Amendment, which said that neither the states nor the federal government could deny a citizen the right to vote because of failure to pay a tax of any kind. It was one more step on that long road to equality under the law.
What’s more, its passage emboldened the Civil Rights movement to press then-President Lyndon Johnson for a comprehensive Voting Rights Act that, among other things, ensured federal intervention and support for minority attempts to register to vote.
Congress passed that act in 1965, and in combination with the 24th Amendment, it resulted in a quarter of a million new black voters by the end of the year. A decade later that number had more than tripled, and blacks also began serving in Congress and state legislative bodies in record numbers. At least in the eyes of the law, all men, and women, finally were “created equal.”