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Ohio state senators oppose the 14th Amendment

Jamie Pietras

The 14th Amendment was conceived with the noblest intentions. In the post-Civil War era, blacks were to be ensured equal rights under federal law, even in former slave-holding states in the South. It affirmed the concept of “inalienable rights” for all citizens, demanding state laws never infringe upon the Bill of Rights for former slaves. Though some states initially refused to ratify the 1866 amendment, each would eventually adopt it. Each, that is, save one.

That’s right: While blacks can certainly vote, own property, and purchase handguns in the state of Ohio, the 14th Amendment has somehow managed to evade the state’s books for 135 years. When the measure was first introduced, Ohio adopted it, only to rescind it a year later. According to an 1868 state resolution, the federal protection was “contrary to the best interests of the white race.”

Suffice it to say, when Cincinnati-area state Sen. Mark Mallory introduced a bill this year to correct the long-standing oversight, he didn’t expect any major battles. “We can’t let the last message on the 14th Amendment in Ohio be one of racism,” he explained. The gesture, Mallory said, would be “symbolic but extremely important.”

Granted, race relations isn’t one of Ohio’s marks of pride. Cincinnati, the city which partially comprises Mallory’s district, was in April 2001 the site of the ugliest riot since the Rodney King verdict. The city erupted when police shot and killed Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black 19-year-old. Celebrities from Bill Cosby to Barbara Ehrenreich to Spike Lee have since refused engagements there as part of an economic boycott.

In addition, while African-Americans make up only 11.5 percent of Ohio’s population, they account for half its inmates in prison and on Death Row. Hamilton County alone has 45 people currently facing execution. It’s no coincidence Ohio ranked fourth in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s last analysis of hate group activity, with groups like the World Church of the Creator and Ku Klux Klan actively recruiting there.

The legislation was actually the idea of the University of Cincinnati Law School’s Urban Justice Institute, a progressive advocacy group created after the Cincinnati riots. Speaking to the group last year about the proposal’s chances of being approved, Mallory said, “It would be a slam dunk, unless the conservatives in the House give us trouble.”

He was only joking—but they really did.

Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Cincinnati Republican, voted against the bill. Timothy Grendell, a Republican from Cleveland, said he didn’t want his vote in favor of the amendment to be “misconstrued.” Why? Abortion.

The 14th Amendment, Grendell says, was misapplied in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that established a woman’s right to abortion. Grendell said he received e-mails from conservatives worrying lawmakers would send the wrong message in approving the amendment, knowing it has been used to support pro-choice causes.

The issue blew into a firestorm after the March 13 Cleveland Plain Dealer hit newsstands. “Grendell said Mallory should read the case Plessy vs. Ferguson, but he doubted Mallory would understand it,” the paper reported. Accusing the senator of not reading a memo Grendell had sent to Republicans a week earlier, in which Grendell said he would support the 14th Amendment, Grendell added: “He’s the only reason I might support the OhioReads program,” the state’s volunteer tutoring program.

Grendell says his comments were taken out of context. On a March 16 episode of the Capitol Square TV program, he said his conversation with the Plain Dealer went like this: “Either [Mallory] didn’t read my memorandum, or [he] has a problem with reading, which led me to probably want to support the Ohio Reads program.”

In response, Mallory said Grendell was “leading the effort to make Ohio a national embarrassment.”

Despite the controversy, Mallory’s bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and Brinkman was the lone holdout in the House. Ohio is soon expected to recognize the revised Bill of Rights. It’s about time.

More articles by Jamie Pietras
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