The long arc of equal-rights history

In the years after the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that freed slaves, Congress debated the status of the black population. While freed slaves were not granted the right to vote until the Fifteenth Amendment, they would each be counted as whole people rather than five slaves being counted as three people, as outlined in the Constitution.

This demographic shift signaled that proportional representation in the House of Representatives would lean further Democratic in the southern states given that the entire black population would now be counted. Thus, undoing that advantage became a priority for Republicans. Unlike today when voter suppression happens under our noses, the goal in the 1860s was to enfranchise freed slaves and court their vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed protections for all, regardless of race. President Andrew Johnson vetoed it on the grounds that it discriminated against whites in favor of blacks. It was overridden and became law anyway, and the tiniest seed of equality in this country was planted.

Republicans worried the new law would be overturned based on the whims of politics and ruling majorities, and sought to entrench the measure within the Constitution.

In June 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment was born. Within section one is the following provision: 

“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 to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

While most of the southern states opposed the amendment, Pennsylvania ratified it in February 1867. Which basically means that the Pennsylvania of 1867 was arguably more progressive than the Pennsylvania of 2019.

The commonwealth still does not have equal protections, despite section one of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fairness Act, which would expand existing nondiscrimination provisions in employment, housing and other areas to include sexual orientation and gender identity, languishes in committee.

Daryl Metcalfe was the chairman of the House State Government Committee who kept the bill stalled along with any other Democratic legislation. Now that he’s gone, there is hope. But how much? It’s a Republican-majority assembly in Harrisburg and there is much work to be done. What we know is that the business of equal protections is at least 153 years overdue.