Latinos and the Fourteenth Amendment: A Primary Document Activity

In this lesson, students will work in pairs and use expert reading strategies to analyze the Court’s ruling in Hernandez v. Texas. After participating in a carousel discussion, students will write a three-minute paper describing how the United States would be different if the Court had reached an alternate conclusion.
Grade Level


In “Latinos and The Fourteenth Amendment,” students will:

  • Understand that “Jim Crow” practices often affected Latinos as well as African Americans;
  • Gain a deeper understanding of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment;
  • Understand the role of the judiciary in ensuring that all citizens are provided with equal protection of the laws, and
  • Use expert reading strategies to interpret a primary document and will write a “three-minute” paper demonstrating their understanding of key themes.
Essential Questions
  • How can individual rights be protected within the context of majority rule?
  • Why do we have laws? What could happen if we didn’t?
  • How does the past influence current generations?
  • What do good readers do when the text doesn’t make sense?
  • How can I "read between the lines"? What does the author really mean?
  • What is the gist? What are the main ideas?
  • Approximately 50 minutes
  • Handout 1: Court’s ruling, with active reading prompts
  • PowerPoint, (PDF) which also can be printed for use on overhead projectors or copied for students as handouts ahead of time
  • Pens and 5 x 8 notecards, or paper


When we think about 1954 and the Supreme Court, we’re likely to think of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which led to the demise of state-mandated segregation in schools and, ultimately, our society. Two weeks before Brown, however, the Court did something nearly as momentous.

In a case called Hernandez v. Texas, the Court recognized that Latinos were subject to discrimination based on their ethnicity. The Court concluded that, although Latinos were considered “white” under Jim Crow regimes, they were covered by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. It was a path-breaking decision, in part, because of the Amendment’s history.

Adopted during the Reconstruction era, the Fourteenth Amendment was purposefully written to counteract Dred Scott, an early Supreme Court ruling that denied citizenship and Constitutional rights to slaves and their descendants, to African Americans. In this ruling, the Court summarily rejected claims that discrimination could or should be defined solely in black-white terms.



Equal Protection [ ēkwəl prəˈtek sh ən ] (noun) The right of all persons to be treated equally by the government. The principle is stated in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution: "No State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This is referred to as the “Equal Protection Clause.”

Writ of Certiorari  [ rit ser sh (ē)ə rärē ] (noun) A decision by the Supreme Court that it will hear an appeal from a lower court.

A petitioner [ pə ti sh ən ] (noun) someone who presents a formal, written application to a court requesting action on a certain matter.

A motion [ mō sh ən ] (noun) A written or oral application made to a court or judge to obtain a ruling or order.

Jury commissioners [ joŏrē |kə mi sh (ə)nər ] (noun) Public officials who choose the names of prospective jury members or select the list of jurors for a particular term in court.

grand jury [ grand  joŏrē ] (noun) A panel of citizens that is convened by a court to decide whether it is appropriate for the government to indict (proceed with a prosecution against) someone suspected of a crime.

petit jury [ petē  joŏrē ] (noun)  Hears the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determines the facts in dispute.

Prima facie [ prīmə  fā sh ə ] (adjective/adverb) Means “on the face of it” or “at first sight.”

Freeholders [ frē hōld ] (noun) People who own land with the right to pass it on through inheritance.



1. Look at Slide 1 of the PowerPoint. Individually, predict what you think the first part of the Fourteenth Amendment says or guarantees? Write down your prediction. Then, with a partner, share your responses. How is your partner’s response similar/different than yours? Now, compare your responses with the actual text of Section 1 of the Amendment on Slide 2. What did you learn? (The section defines citizenship and protects citizens’ equal rights.)

2. With your partner, look at Slide 3 and respond to these questions:

  • How do signs like this one contradict the spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment?
    (If businesses are allowed to exclude particular groups, all groups aren’t enjoying equal protection.)
  • During what era in our nation’s history do you think this sign was posted?
    (Jim Crow, segregation era.)
  • Whom do you think the sign was meant to exclude?
    (Most likely to say African Americans)

3. With your partner, look at Slide 4 and respond to: Was this what you expected to see? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with the class.

4. (Note: share the lesson framework and overview, above, with students at this point, and then distribute the handout.) Find a new partner, review the reading strategies on Slide 5 and then complete the handout of the Court Ruling.

5. To prepare for a carousel discussion, arrange the chairs in the room so that they’re in two circles, chairs facing each other, and take a seat across from someone who was not your previous partner. Working with your new partner, take three minutes to discuss: Were there any particular passages or vocabulary that remained difficult for you even after using “fix up” strategies? Explain. How do “fix up” strategies help you as a reader?

6. You’re going to do a carousel discussion, which means if you are sitting on the outside circle, you will move to the right when the time is up. If you are sitting on the inside circle, you remain seated in the same place. Then, with this new partner, take two minutes to discuss: What issue did Hernandez raise before the Court? With which courts had Hernandez raised this issue before? (People of Mexican descent were being excluded from juries in his county. The court at trial and the Texas Court of Appeals.)

Continuing moving to the right, taking two to three minutes to discuss the following questions. Repeat moving chairs only after completing the time allotted for the discussion of the questions. Continue until discussing all the questions listed.

  • When the case finally reached the Supreme Court, the State of Texas relied on the “two-class theory” in its arguments. What is that theory?
    (The “two-class theory” asserts that the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to African Americans subjected to discrimination by whites, to “differences between white and Negro.” Implied in the State’s argument was the notion that Latinos were considered white, not black, and couldn’t face discrimination by other whites.)
  • Responding to the “two-class theory,” the Supreme Court asserted that “community prejudices are not static, and from time to time other differences from the community norm may define other groups which need the same protection.” How does this view contradict the two-class theory?
    (The Court firmly rejects the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to differences between whites and blacks, acknowledging that prejudice can manifest within a community in multiple ways against multiple groups.)
  • In its opinion, the Court identified two steps Hernandez had to take in order to prove his claim. What were they?
    (Prove that Latinos were a distinct class; prove that discrimination occurred against that class.)
  • What proof did Hernandez offer to show that Latinos were a distinct class in his community — that they were treated differently than other whites?
    (Members of the community offered testimony to that fact; evidence was introduced that Mexican American children attended segregated schools and that community restaurants and bathrooms posted signs distinguishing between whites and Latinos.)
  • What proof did Hernandez offer to show that Latinos faced discrimination in jury selection?
    (His lawyers offered statistics showing that the county was home to many Latinos who qualified for jury service, but that jury commissioners hadn’t called a single Latino to service in 25 years.)
  • How did the State attempt to justify the reality that no Mexican Americans had been called for jury duty? How did the Court respond to these claims?
    (The State offered testimony from jury commissioners that they had not excluded Mexican Americans purposefully, but had simply sought to appoint “the most qualified” persons. The Court said, “It taxes our credulity.”)
  • What was the Court’s ultimate conclusion?
    (Latinos in Jackson County, Tex., were being denied equal protection of the laws.)


Concluding Activity and Assessment

Review Slide 6 of the PowerPoint and then on the 5x8 notecard write for three minutes describing how the United States would be different if the Supreme Court had embraced the “two-class theory” in Hernandez v. Texas. Be purposeful in your description. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of the case and its implications for Latinos and others in the United States, and to identify any unanswered questions this lesson raised for you.

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