On Netflix, How the 14th Amendment Helped Redeem America

We made “Amend,” a star-studded documentary, to bring its passage—and its effects—to life

I am a product made only in America. I am a Black-Irish-Italian-Baptist-Catholic-Jew. I was raised in a Black house by two parents who proudly identified as Black, in no small part because despite the ambiguity of their appearance, the world left no room for the rest of their stories.

My Blackness has always been a source of deep, motivating pride and joy. My Blackness has informed not just my experience in America, but my relationship to the American idea. I was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement, and my young parents took every opportunity—and there were many—to remind me that no matter how much we felt like outsiders, Dr. King and our Black community were the conscience of America, working and dying to make this country live up to its promise that we were all created equally.

Little did I know at the time that this wasn’t just a promise. Little did I know how little I knew. And when I discovered the 14th Amendment after decades of building a life on my belief in the uniquely American idea of equality—without ever understanding the origins and legal authority for it—I began the work that turned into the Netflix series, Amend, now on YouTube for classrooms.

America needed a 14th Amendment after the Civil War to guarantee that Black people and others born here were full and equal citizens. The 13th Amendment freed enslaved people but gave them no rights. The Dred Scott decision declared that no Black people, slave or free, could be citizens. The 14th Amendment was meant to remedy all that.

I come from the hopeful school of America, believing (despite centuries of evidence to the contrary) that America is capable of magnificent transformation and fundamental equality. What I didn’t understand, what precious few of us still really know, is that this promise is not just a broad and horribly gendered declaration in a dusty handwritten founding document that has no binding authority. This promise is actually in our Constitution.

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery to realize he could never be fully free without citizenship. He and others—many others—argued for citizenship, held conventions advocating for it, then fought and died for it in the Civil War. Black soldiers, many who escaped slavery to turn around and risk their lives for the Union, understood that “freedom” meant being American citizens with the rights and protections only the Union offered.

Two days after Appomattox, Lincoln gave a speech from the White House balcony where he argued it was time to give Black soldiers who had turned the tide of the war equal citizenship—including the vote. He was murdered three days later. But so-called “Radicals” of his party fought for and passed the 14th Amendment and put the Declaration’s idea of equality in the Constitution for the first time. It redefined Citizenship and offered protections to the nation’s most vulnerable.

And upon discovering this remarkable story, all I could think was, how on earth did I not know this already? Our entire nation knows more about an apocryphal cherry tree. I crushed AP History in high school. Got an A in American History at Brown. I’d been writing about Civil Rights and equality before I had facial hair or my first kiss. How could I not know about Section 1 of the 14thAmendment:

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.

For the first time in my life, all of my stories suddenly fit into one American story. My Black grandparents whose grandparents were slaves and whose parents were sharecroppers fled the South to look for equal protection and citizenship in New York. My Irish and Italian great grandmother and father who raised their son to be a patriot to defend his citizenship. My dear friend of 30 years who found the love of his life, but couldn’t, wouldn’t marry until it was legal for everyone from his community to do so, despite already having adopted two beautiful boys and giving them a loving and stable home with the man he loves

All of these are 14th Amendment stories. My wife, whose Chinese father survived war with Japan and came to the US in the 1950s—after we had lifted restrictions on Chinese immigration and naturalization, and after Japanese Americans left internment camps to become the most decorated American battalion of World War II. And my daughter, who is now looking at the end of Roe, a 14th Amendment decision, just as she enters the phase of her life where she will make reproductive choices while navigating her own career.

But I didn’t know this story because resistance to the 14th Amendment is equally American. John Archibald Campbell was a Justice on the Dred Scott Court who resigned to become a Confederate leader. After the war, he spent years taking cases back to the Supreme Court and his former colleagues that he hoped would stop Reconstruction and neuter the new 14thAmendment.

The Court handed down a series of decisions that preserved white supremacy and paved the way to Jim Crow by disfiguring the 14th Amendment and even the history of its ratification. It took it upon itself to rule that the 14th Amendment protected corporate rights as it did individual rights, despite there being absolutely no record that John Bingham and other framers of 14 intended for their amendment to protect corporations (and despite there being no case about it—the Justices simply proclaimed it). As a result, Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1938, “of the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one-half of 1 percent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.”

The Court’s decisions kept 14 from protecting Black citizens against lynching, against segregation, and ultimately, just like today, against voter suppression. Red lining and housing discrimination were also protected, at first, by decisions of the Court, only to be overruled decades after the damage had been done up North in places like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and any other American city where de facto segregation and poverty seem intractable today.

And as we now see laws enacted in many states to entrench minority rule and to prevent teaching the full American story that could, should, finally get us past this exceptional American obsession with racial superiority, even discussing the 14th Amendment, a revelation when I first began working on Amend in 2015, is now perceived as nothing less than a threat.

The historian David Blight told me that American history is a series of stories that have an unmistakable flow of Revolution/Counterrevolution. You can see it in our national inability to grasp true equality. The steady, incessant unwillingness of a powerful minority to accept equality is precisely why we need a 14th Amendment to this day, and why most of us have never heard of it.

Amend tells that story. Will Smith, Mahershala Ali, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Lane, Samira Wiley, Diane Guerrero, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Randall Park, Gabriel Luna, Yara Shahidi, Bobby Cannavale, Pedro Pascal, Hannah Gadsby, Laverne Cox, Larry Wilmore and so many performers signed up to tell that story. Sherrilyn Ifill, Bryan Stevenson, Kimberle Crenshaw, Jim Obergefell, Emily Bazelon, David Blight, Eric Foner, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Rick Wilson, Alina Das, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Jeannie Suk Gerson, Grover Norquist, Garrett Epps and so many scholars of and participants in the American story participate in the telling of this one. It is one of the few stories that bind all of us, inextricably, to the very idea of America.

Just this week, Amend received a nomination for the “Best Limited Series” prize in the Critics Choice Real TV awards. Beyond the honor, the nomination may help spread the word about our series, perhaps including some use in schools, colleges, and law schools. Some would like to characterize expanding the American story as a political act. But for those of us who have been loyal, loving Americans who have lived for generations under the narrow construct of the American myth that America is a nation built and sustained only by white men, the act of telling the full American story, and the act of learning it, are true acts of patriotism. And the hopeful American in me believes that learning of the commitment and dedication all of us have made to fulfilling the American experiment will help us understand our country—and respect each other—just a little more.

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Robe Imbriano

Robe Imbriano is a Co-Creator and Executive Producer of Amend, as well as the Co-Executive Producer of the launch of Soul of a Nation (ABC News/Hulu). His animated short, White Fatigue, is also currently streaming on YouTube.