The 14th Amendment granted citizenship and legal protection to freed slaves to prevent southern state governments from violating their civil rights. Placing the legal rights of blacks under federal jurisdiction challenged southern states that had previously enacted harsh policies with impunity.
The ratification of the 14th Amendment stemmed from the controversial Dred Scott vs. Sanford case, in which a slave attempted to sue for freedom. Although Scott had periodically lived in free territory, the Supreme Court denied his claim, ruling that blacks weren't citizens and didn't have the right to pursue legal proceedings.
In the following decade, the conclusion of the Civil War led to the abolishment of slavery, but the government continually struggled to define the civic role of former slaves during the post-war era. The amendment overturned the ruling in the Dred Scott case by offering former slaves the right to a jury trial and the right to contest any punishment enforced without a fair legal process.
While the amendment prohibited state and local governments from interfering with any citizen's "privileges and immunities," southerners argued that the power to enforce civil legislation remained with the states. These conflicting interpretations gave rise to institutionalized discrimination. For example, the "separate, but equal" policy was considered constitutional and in compliance with the 14th Amendment because segregated public facilities were provided to give blacks equal accommodation.