(Michelle Thompson for The Washington Post)

After the Civil War, the United States passed three new amendments to the Constitution: The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship and guaranteed equal protection under the law regardless of race. And the 15th Amendment gave men of every race the right to vote.

And yet, nearly 100 years later, civil rights leaders like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr., were marching in the streets to fight for those very same rights. African American citizens were being blocked from voting. Segregation still divided the South.

"The struggle of Civil Rights was to really redeem the soul of America," says John Lewis, now a long-serving congressman. "We wanted America, we wanted our people, to live up to the spirit of the Constitution."

The fourth episode of The Washington Post's "Constitutional" podcast explores why these three civil rights amendments were stripped of their power -- and why the promise of racial equality, enshrined in the Constitution in the 19th century, still needed to be fought for in the 20th century and, now, the 21st.

Episode guests include Lewis, as well as professors Eric Foner of Columbia University and Erica Armstrong Dunbar of the University of Delaware.

Listen to the episode here.

Check out the “Constitutional” Web page and subscribe to get new episodes free on Apple PodcastsStitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. For updates about the series, you can also follow podcast host Lillian Cunningham on Twitter: @lily_cunningham

Transcript of "Episode 04: Race"

[Archival tape from March on Washington]

Cunningham: Stretching from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial all the way down the National Mall, packed shoulder to shoulder, is a sea of people. All colors of clothing, all colors of hair, all colors of skin.

It’s the March on Washington in August of 1963. And civil rights leaders have joined together to cry out with a crowd of hundreds of thousands that America is not living up to the promise of equality enshrined in the Constitution; that it is failing to be a country of true liberty and justice. This is the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers his iconic “I have a dream” speech, with the statue of Lincoln towering behind him. And joining him at the lectern on the steps of the memorial were other prominent voices of the era, like Roy Wilkins and Bob Dylan and Josephine Baker--and:

Archival tape from March on Washington: Young John Lewis, national chairman student nonviolent coordinating committee. Brother John Lewis.

Archival tape of John Lewis: We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of.  For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here.  For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, twelve hours a day...

Cunningham: John Lewis was 23-years old that day, the youngest speaker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Today, he’s 77-years old. He has an office bursting with black-and-white photographs. It’s on the other side of the National Mall, right next to the U.S. Capitol building, where he serves as a congressman.

John Lewis: These photographs fail to capture the spirit, the music. People would just be walking along singing. If it hadn’t been for music, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.

The advent of the civil rights movement during the 50s and 60s made it very plain crystal clear to me that we had an obligation to do what we could to make real the Constitution of the United States of America.

Cunningham: I’m Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post, and this is Constitutional.

[Introductory theme music]

Cunningham: Why did we need a Civil Rights movement in America in the 1950s and ‘60s? And why do we still have civil-rights protests today?

The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, granted citizenship and guaranteed equal protection under the law regardless of race. And then the 15th Amendment, also passed right after the Civil War, gave men of every race the right to vote.

It took enormous effort and bloodshed to fight for these three powerful amendments. And their passage in the 1860s finally put rights for racial equality into Constitution. So: What happened? Why, 100 years later during the Civil Rights movement, were John Lewis and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., still fighting for the same things: equal protection, the right to vote. Rights that the Constitution already said they had.

The answer lies in what happened in America after the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed during Reconstruction -- the ways that our society and our legal system stripped these amendments of their power and their intended meaning.

Because it turns out that, as powerful as it was to change the Constitution, that wasn’t enough to change the reality of life in America.

Lewis: We had everything in the Constitution, we just had to make it whole.

Cunningham: That’s John Lewis again.

Lewis: As a young child, it became crystal clear to me that there were certain rights and privileges that other people had that my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents didn't have -- that it was an ongoing struggle to realize the dream of the 14th and 15th Amendment.

Cunningham: John Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, in 1940 -- so about 75 years after the passage of these amendments for equal rights and racial equality. But his life in some ways didn’t look wildly different from life for African Americans before the Civil War. His family worked the land, as sharecroppers. His parents couldn’t vote. He couldn’t go to school with white children. He couldn’t enter certain shops and restrooms.

Lewis: I kept asking my mother and my father and my grandparents and great grandparents: Why? Asking my teachers: Why? They always said: That's the way it is.

Cunningham: But the thing is, that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Something had gone horribly wrong. John Lewis’s parents had the right to vote under the Constitution. They had equal protection under the Constitution. They had no more bondage under the Constitution.

As John Lewis said, the words were all right there -- their promises just needed to be kept. Because in America, when John Lewis was growing up, those words on paper meant almost nothing. They were empty promises. They were dead letters.

To grasp why these amendments were stripped of all their power, we need to understand the hard-fought battle to secure these constitutional amendments in the first place.

And that takes us back to abolition.

As you’ll recall, when the Constitution was drafted in 1787, it didn’t end slavery or assure equal rights to all people.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar: If you read the Preamble to the Constitution it can't help but point out exactly how hypocritical the ideals of freedom and justice and inalienable rights that we get from the Declaration of Independence as well.

Cunningham: You’ll remember this voice from our first episode about the Constitutional Convention. Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a professor at the University of Delaware.

Dunbar: It's so very clear that these are ideals that were only really available to white men. And these ideals would take close to a century if not longer to find their way to the lives of black people, both enslaved and later on to those who were free.

Cunningham: There was lofty language in the preamble about forming a more perfect union and securing the blessings of liberty, but those ideas were in tension with concrete language in the body of the Constitution about allowing the Atlantic slave trade to continue, and returning fugitive slaves to their owners and counting enslaved people as 3/5ths of a person.

Dunbar: This happened simultaneously with the arrival of cotton on the sea isles of Georgia and South Carolina. The cash crops of tobacco and indigo and rice had made Southerners wealthy, and Northerners as well -- those who were involved in shipping and banking. Slavery played a key role in what would become a national economy.

Cunningham: But it doesn’t take long for the abolition movement to grow stronger and stronger in America. Over the course of the early 1800s, more and more northern states abolish slavery. It’s even being abolished abroad. England, in 1833, finally bans it throughout the British empire. But as these other areas are giving slavery up, the South is digging in. It’s preserving slavery as the basis of its economy and its social structure. So by the time we’re on the eve of Civil War, there are 4 million enslaved people in America.

And as abolitionists start wrestling with how to get rid of slavery across the entire United States, their attention turns to the Constitution.

Eric Foner: Most anti-slavery people felt that the Constitution made it impossible for the federal government to directly confront slavery in the states; it was a state institution, the federal government had no authority over it, and there wasn't a heck of a lot much you could do.

Cunningham: Eric Foner is a professor at Columbia University specializing in the history of U.S. race relations.

Foner: So you have people like William Lloyd Garrison, who famously burned the Constitution at a July 4th abolitionist meeting in the 1850s, saying it was a covenant with the devil. William Lloyd Garrison was probably the most prominent abolitionist in the United States in the 1830s, ‘40s, ‘50s. he was the editor of The Liberator, a weekly abolitionist publication that came out of Boston, and the key organizer of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Cunningham: A few years after Garrison dramatically burned a copy of the Constitution, the Supreme Court would itself reinforce the idea that it was a pro-slavery document. In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves should be considered property under the Constitution.

Foner: Scott was a slave. And by the way it also involved his wife Mrs. Dred Scott and his two daughters. But anyway, they were slaves in Missouri. They had been taken by their owner both to the state of Illinois, where slavery was banned by state law, and then up to Wisconsin territory, where slavery had been prohibited by Congress. Then they were taken back to Missouri. Later they sued for their freedom on the grounds that having been in a free state and free territory made them free people.

This took many years. It got up to the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Roger Taney issued the majority opinion. The Supreme Court decided: A black person cannot be a citizen of the United States and therefore there's no case here. Scott can't sue because he's not a citizen. Whether he's free or slave doesn't matter, citizenship is only for white people. That meant the case was over. Perhaps. But Taney plowed ahead and said Congress in fact has no power to abolish slavery in any of the territories of the United States.

This was a flagrantly partisan and sectional decision. And it really destroyed the reputation of the Supreme Court in the North. Even people who were not abolitionists thought this was an outrageous attempt by the Supreme Court to intervene in politics and to make slavery almost a national institution. And so when the secession crisis took place, nobody said: “Let's see what the Supreme Court has to say about this.” The Supreme Court's reputation was at its lowest ebb in its history as a result of the Dred Scott decision. But one of the reasons for the 14th Amendment -- we'll get to that -- was to overturn Dred Scott and to say that anybody born in the United States is a citizen.

Cunningham: And yet, at the same time that some abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison are railing against the Constitution as an evil document, there are others who take a different tack. One of them is the famous abolitionist and former slave, Fredrick Douglass.

Foner: Frederick Douglass, who started out as a Garisson-ian, later changed his mind and said: No, the Constitution interpreted properly is an anti-slavery document.

Cunningham: Instead of casting the Constitution as something that needs to be fought against, Fredrick Douglass starts drawing attention to the ideals and intent of the framers. He uses the Constitution to actually help the case for abolishing slavery. A tactic that Civil Rights leaders like John Lewis would also use a century later.

Lewis: Douglass had the ability and the capacity to speak up. We were deeply inspired by his words.

Cunningham: In one speech of his, called “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass says of the Constitutional framers:

“They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression.”

And then he goes on:

“Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.”

Foner: The word slave does not appear in the Constitution. There are circumlocutions – other persons, persons held to labor, things like that. Some anti-slavery people said, as a result of that, the Constitution is really anti-slavery, it does not recognize slavery explicitly. And there are other sections like the preamble, which talks about securing the blessings of liberty. Or the Fifth Amendment, which says that the federal government cannot deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property -- liberty, obviously -- without due process of law. Those are strongly anti-slavery provisions. You know, there was a lot of dispute about that until the Civil War.

Cunningham: Of course, the Civil War comes, in 1861. And while it’s being fought on the battlefields, the fight also begins inside Congress. They start thinking about how to amend the Constitution to bring its words more in line with the spirit of union and justice.

Foner: Amending the Constitution is a very cumbersome process. It's very difficult to do. It requires two-thirds of Congress to approve and then three-quarters of the states. Before the Civil War, there was no conceivable way that you could get two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states to approve an anti-slavery constitutional amendment. The southern states had the power to block it. So it's really only during the Civil War, when the Southern states -- or 11 of them anyway -- have succeeded. They're no longer represented in Congress, which makes it easier to pass an amendment through Congress. And then how are you going to get three-quarters of the states? That's something they were trying to figure out as the as the Civil War went on.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of course made the destruction of slavery an aim of the Union war effort, but it did not completely abolish the institution of slavery. And very quickly after that, some radical Republicans and then others began saying: The way to irrevocably get rid of slavery completely and utterly from the country is by amending the Constitution. Because remember: A law of Congress can be repealed by the next Congress, right? So to make these permanent, you'd have to put them into the Constitution.

Cunningham: So as the Civil War comes to an end, the focus in Congress turns toward this goal: adding three new amendments to the Constitution that will officially end slavery and finally secure equal rights, regardless of race. And the fight to pass and ratify these takes place during the Reconstruction era.

Foner: Reconstruction is one of the most important and unfortunately one of the most misunderstood eras in American history -- the period after the Civil War when the country confronted these fundamental problems of how to reunite the nation after the war and also what was going to be the status of the 4 million black people who had acquired their freedom as a result of the war.

And a tremendous political battle took place over that between Andrew Johnson, the president who succeeded Lincoln after Lincoln's assassination, and the Republican majority in Congress.

Cunningham: The first amendment the Congress tackles is the abolition of slavery, and they start the push for it even before the war has ended.

Foner: The Republicans had a very big majority in Congress. the 13th Amendment Passed the Senate by a large margin in the spring of 1864, but it failed in the House to get the two-thirds required. The issue came back to Congress, to the House, in 1865 January; and there was a lot of arm-twisting and a lot of maneuvering. Eventually they managed to cobble together the two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives to approve the 13th Amendment. There was probably the biggest celebration in the history of Congress on the day, January 31, 1865, that the 13th Amendment was passed. I mean in the hall of the House of Representatives, members started shrieking and yelling and screaming and throwing their hats up in the air.

Women and men in the galleries were applauding and yelling. it was a giant celebration, which was not usually the way proceedings went in the House of Representatives. But anyway you still needed three-quarters of the states to ratify. Most of the northern states quickly did, but you needed some southern states to get to that three-quarters of the states. So it's not actually until December 1865, months after the end of the Civil War, that the Secretary of State Seward announces that 13th Amendment has been ratified by the requisite number of states.

Cunningham: And the way they get enough states to sign off on it is that President Andrew Johnson, despite his friction with Congress and his lack of support for true equal rights, he does make it a condition of re-entry to the Union that southern states ratify this amendment.

Foner: The 13th Amendment is very brief. It simply says neither slavery nor involuntary servitude can exist in the United States. But it has a second clause which says that -- I'm paraphrasing here -- Congress can enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation. That was a very, very important clause, because it meant that the abolition of slavery was an ongoing process. It was not just one moment. Congress would have the right to enforce it.

What does it mean to enforce the abolition of slavery? Well that depends on what you think is actually being abolished. Is it simply the buying and selling of human beings? Okay, there'll be no more buying and selling. But maybe there's more than that. What is it to be a free person in America? What about the racism that is intrinsic to slavery? Is that being abolished? What about the political system in the South founded on slavery?

Or what about education? Black slaves were barred from education. In other words, are all of the restrictions of slavery now to be abolished? And can Congress enforce that? That became a major source of debate during Reconstruction. So in fact the first effort to implement that was in early 1866 when Congress enacted -- over the veto of President Johnson -- the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was the first civil rights legislation in American history.

Cunningham: This Civil Rights Act was, as Eric says, an offshoot of that clause in the 13th amendment that gave Congress the power to enforce the abolition of slavery. So in this new legislation, Congress laid out certain basic rights that should be given to African Americans as part of the end of slavery -- things like the right to testify in court, the right to sue, the right to sign a contract.

Foner: These are not political rights, not the right to vote, but the rights to enable you to compete as a free person in the marketplace, to try to advance yourself. If you can't sign a contract, if you can't go to court, if you can't testify, how are you going to advance in this society? And in fact it also said that the laws must treat black and white equally.

So you see it went beyond just knocking the chains off of people and said these are the basic rights of what it is to be a free person in the United States. It was a very far reaching measure, and it showed the power of the 13th Amendment as a vehicle for trying to address the law the inequities of slavery even after slavery was abolished.

Cunningham: Around the time this Civil Rights Act is going through Congress though, relations between President Andrew Johnson and Congress are rapidly deteriorating. He vetoes the measure, then Congress passes it over his veto. Meanwhile, Republican congressmen are also trying to get other amendments passed: next up, the 14th amendment.

Foner: The 14th Amendment is the longest amendment in our Constitution, it's got five sections. The first section, which is the most important today and in terms of jurisprudence, was primarily written by John Bingham, a moderate Republican congressman from Ohio. He'd been a strong anti-slavery person before the Civil War.

He wanted to use language that was very familiar to people. So for example, Charles Sumner – radical Republican from Massachusetts – he proposed a 14th amendment which was based on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, from 1791. But Bingham said: Nah, we don’t want French stuff here. This is ridiculous. We’re going to use common American language.

He put in phrases that are already in the Constitution in many places. So the 14th Amendment, the first section, begins by saying: Any person born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof is a citizen of both the state they're living in and the nation. This is actually the first constitutional definition of who is a citizen of the United States.

Cunningham: So if the 13th amendment abolishes slavery, the 14th Amendment grants those former slaves citizenship. But it also goes on to do a lot more. It basically makes sure that rights for citizens under federal law -- like not being denied life, liberty or property without due process -- that those rights also apply on the state level.

There’s also a very important clause in the 14th Amendment that says states can’t deprive citizens of equal protection.

Foner: That's new. There was nothing in the original Constitution about equal protection of the law. There was nothing about equality.

Now remember before the Civil War Every state in the union, north and south, had laws discriminating against black people. So this wipes out laws all over the country that were based on white supremacy. It's a very radical idea in 19th century America that there must be equal protection of the law to all people in the United States. Again, what does that exactly mean?

These phrases -- “equal protection,” “due process, “privileges,” “immunities” -- their exact meaning gets worked out over time, it expands over time. Today, this section of the 14th amendment has been used in ways that were hardly anticipated by the people of 1866. I mean, for example, the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, or saying a state cannot deny people the right to marry on the basis of homosexuality, that's a 14th Amendment decision.

So the 14th Amendment has become the most important part of the Constitution in many ways in determining the rights of citizens -- something that people can appeal to when they feel their equal rights are being violated. It really changed the Constitution into what we knew it to be in the late 20th century -- that is to say a vehicle for groups that feel their rights being denied by the state governments. So it's a fundamental change in our political and constitutional system.

Cunningham: The 14th Amendment does have four other sections to it, including a section that finally gets rid of the three-fifths compromise. The other sections mostly have to do with war debt and with limits on public service if you were part of the confederacy.

Foner: So it's a long, complicated amendment. And getting it ratified was not easy. Every single one of the southern state governments that Andrew Johnson had set up rejected the 14th Amendment. They thought it was outrageous. They didn't want to give blacks these equal rights, et cetera.

So eventually Congress got so fed up with Johnson and his governments that they pretty much said: We're going to have new governments in the South, these governments are no good. And those governments must ratify the 14th Amendment if they want to get back into the Union. So like the 13th, 14th ratification was required by the federal government as a consequence of the Civil War. This is unusual in American history of course, for Congress to require the ratification of an amendment, but that is how the 13th and 14th Amendments both eventually got to the Constitution.

Cunningham: But unlike the 13th amendment:

Foner: Nobody celebrated the passage of the 14th Amendment. There was no big party in Congress. There were no big parades. It was a compromise, and a lot of people were unhappy with it.

Thaddeus Stevens, the great congressman from Pennsylvania who basically shepherded through the House of Representatives -- in the final speech before its passage, he said: I don't really like this amendment all that much. It doesn't give black men the right to vote which they deserve. It doesn't punish the South as much as I wish. Why do I vote for it then? He said: Because I live among men and not among angels.

Cunningham: In 1869, the last of the three Reconstruction-era amendments passes -- the 15th amendment. It gives African American men the right to vote, but it does so in sort of a backwards way. It says, essentially, that a state can’t deny anyone the right to vote because of race.

Foner: The radical Republicans were not too happy with this. They wanted a positive amendment stating who should vote. And it would have said something like: All male citizens 21 years of age and older have the right to vote. But that's not what it says. It says no state can deny you the right to vote because of race. It left open many other grounds for denying people the right to vote -- property qualification, literacy tests, poll taxes. Today, as you know, there are efforts to deny people the right to vote because they don't have the right kind of identification. Those are not barred by the 15th Amendment unless you can prove that they are racially motivated.

Nonetheless, putting in the Constitution the principle that black men have the right to vote was a remarkable change in the political system of the United States and in the race relations. It's less than 10 years since 4 million people were slaves, and now suddenly they are equal members of the society in terms of civil rights, in terms of political rights, et cetera. So the 15th Amendment is the last of the Reconstruction-era amendments. And it's a major step forward, although it is not sufficient really.

Cunningham: As soon as the period of Reconstruction officially ends -- around 1877, when the last federal troops leave their occupation and oversight of the South -- the promise of the blessings of liberty, of racial equality, of voting rights…the promises that all these three amendments represent begins to vanish.

Fast forward to the 1950s and they’re nowhere to be found.

Lewis: People could not register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. People stood in what I call immovable lines trying to register. They were told they could not read or write well enough. They had to pass a so-called literacy test in many places. It was simply a device. People were harassed, beaten. Some people were murdered. So by the hundreds, and by the thousands, people start protesting.

Cunningham: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments mark the first time that politicians other than those who started our nation successfully changed the language of the Constitution. The first 10 amendments were the Bill of Rights, the next two amendments were passed in 1794 and 1803. So it seemed certain that what this Congress had accomplished after the Civil War was momentous, definitive, permanently altering.

During Reconstruction, in this brief twilight after the three amendments passed, black men voted. They held political office. Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first black U.S. senator and John Rainey was the first black U.S. representative, both taking office in 1870. Racial equality seemed, suddenly, to actually be within reach. But then:

Foner: This stimulated a very violent reaction. The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations rose to combat reconstruction.

Cunningham: The KKK started in Tennessee in 1866, with a group of former Confederate soldiers, but the white supremacy group soon spread to almost every state in the South. Black politicians were killed. Republican voters who supported Reconstruction -- black and white -- were kept from the polls. Innocent people were terrorized, lynched, all in an effort to keep racial equality from truly setting in.

Foner: Racism revives very radically. And by the 1880s, 1890s a general assumption takes hold north and south that black people are just not capable of taking part in democratic government. And also the old tradition of federalism -- that the state governments should be the basic units for dealing with the rights of citizens -- becomes more and more prevalent.

Cunningham: States, themselves, start stripping away African Americans’ ability to vote by devising ways to keep them from the polls -- ways that technically don’t deny voting based on race, like literacy tests and poll taxes. These were the same kind of vote blocking techniques John Lewis was still witnessing in the South by the mid 20th century. They started here, during the collapse of Reconstruction.

Foner: They had property qualifications, or what they called “understanding clauses.” You had to prove that you understand a section of the state constitution. That left it up to the local voter registrar, and somehow they would rule that every black person didn't understand the state constitution and every white person did. But they said: It's not about race, it's not about race at all, we're just talking about whether they know anything about the state government or not. They crafted those measures to avoid violating the 15th Amendment. So the it was not as strong an amendment as it should have been to permanently guarantee the political rights of African American men.

Cunningham: So the states are keeping black voters from the polls, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan are using violence and intimidation to undo the gains of Reconstruction. And at the same time, the Supreme Court is also issuing a slew of decisions that defang the intent of these amendments.

Foner: There's an old saying the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. And increasingly in the late 19th century, the Supreme Court retreated from a broad definition of rights and equality. And it increasingly interpreted the Civil War amendments in a very, very narrow manner, until by the early 20th century they were virtually dead letters on the books. But it's not just nine guys on the Supreme Court. The country itself was retreating from Reconstruction, was retreating from the principle of equality.

Now this takes place over a long period of time. It's not just one moment one decision. It's a generation or two.

Cunningham: In the 1876 Cruickshank decision, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of white supremacists who had massacred about 100 African Americans. The court said that it was up to the states to deal with these sort of crimes. Essentially stripping power from the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause.

There are numerous other significant cases that unravel the gains of Reconstruction, and one of the most famous and destructive was Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896. This case involved segregated railroad cars in Louisiana, and the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that -- again, despite the wording of the 14th amendment -- segregation was constitutional.

Foner: Plessy made “separate but equal” the law of the land -- and it was all the way up to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s, and it provided the legal foundation for racial segregation. It's certainly the most disreputable period in Supreme Court history in many ways.

Cunningham: This idea of “separate but equal” would come to define life in the South. It would mean separate schools, separate water fountains, separate stores. But it never meant equal.

Lewis: I remember in 1956, when I was 16-years old, with some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, going down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama trying to get library cards. And we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. I never went back to the library until I became a member of Congress.

Cunningham: By the time John Lewis was growing up in America, it was almost as if these three equality amendments never existed. But they had. And they technically still did.

Foner: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments -- they were dead letters throughout the South, but they were in the Constitution. Half a century later, the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s you might say reawaken them. The civil rights revolution did not need any constitutional amendments. What it needed was the Constitution that we had to be actually enforced.

Cunningham: For the Constitution to be made whole.

In 1954, a decision came down from the Supreme Court. It was more than 50 years after Plessy vs. Ferguson had established “separate but equal.” This new case was Brown v. Board of Education, and it overturned Plessy’s logic. It ruled that having separate schools for black children and white children was unconstitutional.

Lewis: I remember very, very well May 17, 1954. I was in high school, getting ready to enter the ninth grade. I thought, I really thought, that the next year I would be attending a desegregated school. That somehow and some way the law was going to work; the Constitution was going to become real for all of us.

Cunningham: It didn’t. Not right away. Schools resisted. People resisted. But the Supreme Court decision showed that something in America was shifting. About to shift.

A year later, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a bus in the white section. That set in motion the boycott to desegregate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. And then that, in turn, gave strength and hope to a new generation of Americans that the promise of racial equality that came after the Civil War might yet be realized.

Lewis: The struggle of Civil Rights was to really redeem the soul of America; to get us to come to that point and lay down the burden of race; that under the Constitution, with the Constitution, you have certain rights guaranteed and protected. The right to participate in a democratic process. The right to vote. We had to interpret the essence of the Constitution. So we wanted America, we wanted America, we wanted our people to live up to the spirit of the Constitution.

Cunningham: The efforts to make the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments whole -- to make them real -- involved sit-ins at lunch counters, and peaceful marches that were met with extraordinary violence, and efforts to pass new civil rights laws through Congress, and battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court again.

Lewis: People involved in this ongoing struggle put so much faith in the Constitution and the interpretation of the Constitution by members of the court. And when the decision came down to desegregate the buses in Montgomery, there was an old woman who said something like: God Almighty has spoken from Washington.

It was the essence of what the Constitution had been saying from the existence of our country. We kept saying we have a constitutional right. We have a right to protest, as Dr. King would say, for what is right -- in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion. We have a right to march from Selma to Montgomery to seek redress of our grievances. That’s protected, is guaranteed by the Constitution. We saw the Constitution as being on our side, being on the side of right.

Cunningham: The power of the Civil Rights movement brought into being the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned all discrimination and segregation -- based not just on race, but also color, religion, sex or national origin.

It also resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which explicitly outlawed things like literacy tests. But also more generally prohibited any other actions that would result in racial discrimination at the polls.

We also got the passage of one more amendment, ratified in 1964. It was the 24th Amendment, banning poll taxes.

These were immense victories for racial equality, huge steps toward reviving the spirit of those three amendments passed after the Civil War. But if the birth and death and rebirth of these constitutional ideals of equality can teach us anything, it’s that America’s story is not neat. And the ending is never assured.

Archival tape of John Lewis: We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham.

Cunningham: John Lewis, after his speeches and his marches and his jailings as an activist in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he became -- and still is -- a congressman. He’s working in yet another era, from yet another vantage point, on issues that are at their heart part of the same ongoing effort.

Archival tape of John Lewis: By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: “Wake up America! Wake up!” For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

Foner: Our history is not as some people seem to think just a straight line of greater and greater progress. Rights can be gained and rights can be taken away and fought for another day.

What's amazing is how we're still debating reconstruction questions. Who should vote? That's on the agenda right now. Who's a citizen, who should be a citizen? That's a political issue right now. What are the powers of the federal government in relation to the state governments? That's a political issue right now. How do you combat terrorism?

In other words, Reconstruction is the origin of a lot of our current politics, even though we don't really often appreciate that. So I guess the point is we have to be vigilant about maintaining our rights, because they can never be taken for granted. Even when they're written into the Constitution, they cannot be taken for granted.

Archival tape of John Lewis: I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution.

Cunningham: Revolution is the dramatic ushering in of progress and change. And that’s part of the story of America. But revolution also implies a cycle, a revolving, gains, losses, regains, having to fight over and over again for rights that were supposed to be secured before. And that’s also the story of America.

Because the Constitution is only as good as we are.

Lewis: They never gave up. They would win a victory here and lose moments of success, and there were great unbelievable setbacks. But they kept trying. So it's up to each generation to continue to push to pool to help move us closer to what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the beloved community. Every generation -- whether it's members of Congress or presidents or average citizens -- must do what we can to move us to a more equal society, where we all can enjoy the fruits and blessing of the American dream.

[END OF EPISODE]

Cunningham: Many thanks to this week’s guests: Eric Foner, a professor at Columbia University; Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor at the University of Delaware; and of course Congressman John Lewis.

Fief and drum music is by Other Turner and the Rising Star Fief and Drum Band. Special thanks to Sharde Thomas and the rest of the Turner family for its use.

Our theme music and additional compositions are by Ryan and Hays Holladay. The original artwork for our podcast is by Michelle Thompson. And many thanks to Ted Muldoon, my producer here at The Washington Post.

If you like the show, we’d really appreciate if you’d rate and review us on whatever platform you’re listening to this. And if you want more info about the series, go to washingtonpost.com/constitutional.