Contrary to popular belief, the phrase “…all men are created equal,” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. However, it can be found in the earlier document; the Declaration of Independence. This tells us that equality was a priority in this country, even before the American Revolution.
In 1868, equality was mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, with the ratification of the 14th Amendment. In an early court case about equality, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote about the purpose of the 14th Amendment. In the words of Justice Strong in 1879 –
The 14th Amendment …(is)…one of a series of constitutional provisions having a common purpose, namely to secure to a recently emancipated race, which had been held in slavery through many generations, all the civil rights that the superior race enjoy. (Strauder v. West Virginia)
Ironically, application of the 14th Amendment by the federal courts lead to the infamous 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, allowing “separate but equal” facilities for different races, otherwise known as segregation. This decision has been overruled, making segregation by race illegal. In the 1954 landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, the court interpreted the 14th Amendment to mean that:
“Separate” can never truly be “equal.”
The 14th Amendment has been applied in many courts cases in which a law or policy requires differential treatment according to race, as well as national origin, immigration status, and religion. Several examples cases are outlined below for further study.