Classroom Update from "The Fourteenth Amendment" by Andy Donnelly
This week was Equal Protection week in “The Fourteenth Amendment” course at the J. Austin White Cultural Center in Eudora, Arkansas. We’re spending this summer examining the history of the Amendment and the Supreme Court decisions that have shaped how we understand it. Every day this summer, we’ve discussed and debated issues of history, equity, and public policy about which students have been vocal with their opinions.
Framing such questions through the 14th Amendment has allowed us to ground these questions and debates in a deeper understanding of U.S. history. Most importantly, this course is a reading course, one where we’re closely reading laws and the interpretation of those laws. The opinions about the world that students develop in this course are opinions about what clauses, sentences, and paragraphs mean or ought to mean.
This week, we’ve focused on the final clause of the Amendment’s first section that prohibits a state from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” What exactly has that meant and what should it mean?
As we saw this week, there are a number of interpretive options. We looked first at the “separate but equal” interpretation from the Plessy v. Ferguson case. At first, students agreed with Justice Harlan’s dissent that the Constitution ought to be “color-blind” and agreed with the Brown v. Board decision that “separate is inherently unequal.” But, when we looked at excerpts from a critique of Brown v. Board by Derrick Bell, the class became divided on what equal protection should mean.
We had arrived at the debate for this week. The question was: Should we argue that the “equal protection” clause demands racially integrated schools or equal educational outcomes?
All of the students agreed that they ultimately wanted both. The real question became whether to try for integration first in order to achieve equal outcomes or to try to create equal outcomes at possibly segregated schools and then let integration happen on its own. As one student opened, “We want to make model black schools, schools so advanced that white students wish they could attend. We all want to work in the best interest of the child. This is in the best interest of our black children. We want our children to have the best education they can possibly get.”But the other side replied: “This is going back in time to ‘separate but equal.’ Model black schools are great but will make more segregation, not just between children but between communities. It will lead to more racism.” They acknowledged that integration would not happen suddenly but believed that over time it would succeed.
Their colleagues on the other side doubted this: “With integrated schools, there can still be segregation within schools. Within your racially integrated schools, will administrators see to it that students are being treated equally?” The opposing side doubted that anything other than integration could ever achieve equality. Equal protection was the agreed goal, but the debate over how to get there remained unresolved.
The debate demonstrated what’s been true all along this summer: students want both to think critically about the meaning of the law as written and to strategize about the arguments that will best achieve the world they want. We started the summer by examining the origins of the 14th Amendment from the inequalities written into the U.S. Constitution to a Civil War in which black soldiers fought to end slavery and achieve equal rights. We looked at how the 14th Amendment overturned the Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to African Americans and how the Supreme Court narrowed the 14th Amendment during Reconstruction. Then, we spent one week on the Citizenship Clause and one week on Equal Protection. Next week, we’ll turn to the Due Process clause as students begin researching and writing final essays on an issue related to the 14th Amendment.
Returning to a Freedom Summer Collegiate classroom after managing the program for three summers has been a wonderful experience--the best Freedom Summer I’ve had yet! I’ve had the huge advantage of implementing some of the best classroom practices I’ve seen from observing our teachers over these past three summers. I’ve been reinvigorated by working with the J. Austin White Cultural Center in Eudora, AR and along with Profs. Marjorie Cantine, Darryl Jones, & Jonathan Tugman and our students as we inaugurate educational programming in the Tommy Marshall Curiosity Center! Every year, I’m surprised when our teachers express gratitude for the opportunity to teach with us--because we’re grateful that they’re here working with us. But this summer I certainly feel grateful to work with such inspiring students and amazing colleagues and with Lauren Hedgren at the Cultural Center!