Garrett Epps: Professor reaches way back for engaging story of how we got our civil rights

Historians in the News

Garrett Epps has nearly covered the waterfront as a writer: novelist, historian, op-ed commentator, humorist. (Word is that this University of Oregon Law School prof holds his students' attention in the lecture hall pretty well, too.) His latest book, "Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America," shows off his abilities as a strategic historian -- one who makes the chess moves of the past come alive and seem sharply relevant to the present and future.

Don't be put off by the ether-like smell wafting off the book's cover. Writers who earn their main coin in academic settings tend to front-load their books with these stuffy titles. (Anything too pop-sounding makes the other eggheads nervous.) True, this work is hundreds of pages of inside baseball about the 39th Congress and the minutiae that underpinned the far-reaching 14th Amendment, but Epps doesn't wander too far without surfacing with his refreshing you-are-there observations about the earnest guys who helped bring us civil rights.

The democratic experiment that became America has its roots in the Constitutional contortions of 1787, but Epps argues, convincingly, that the fight for the 14th Amendment well deserves the label of "second Constitution." It was during that 1866 season that this amendment was forged. The fight came about as former slaves (freed by the 13th Amendment) stood to be counted as citizens to the political benefit of Southern states, but without gaining the basic civil rights held by their white neighbors. The much-debated 14th Amendment essentially forced all states to extend the promise of the Bill of Rights, and thwarted the post-Civil War Black Codes that restricted African Americans' rights to live where they wished, take up legal disputes in court and so on.

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