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Fifteenth Amendment: Black Votes (In Theory)

The Passage

In the five years following the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth constitutional amendments were passed to extend civil rights and legal protections to those who had previously been enslaved. These laws are often called the Civil War Amendments or Reconstruction Amendments, as they were passed in the Reconstruction era. Although enslaved African Americans had been freed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and granted equal protection under the law by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, there was much debate on whether or not they should also receive the right to vote - a right that had previously only been granted to white men. About half of the seemingly tolerant northern states still denied this right to Black people when Republican President Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868. Recognizing the importance of African American voters in ensuring the success of Republicans against conservative southern politicians, the party drafted various proposals centered on extending suffrage and presented them to a divided Congress. Eventually, the most moderate version was accepted by a majority of the legislative branch in February 1869 and subsequently sent to the states for ratification.

When some states resisted, Congress decided to require southern states to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in order to return to the Union and regain representation in the legislature. On February 3rd, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was officially ratified nearly two years after its predecessor as the third and final Reconstruction Amendment.

Amendment Text

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Interpretation

Quite simply, the Fifteenth Amendment means that African American men, including those who were previously enslaved, are allowed to vote in elections. The Amendment does not extend to African American women, as no women were allowed to vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment fifty years later. However, the right to vote could no longer be denied on the basis of race - at least in theory.

Major Court Cases

In a 1915 case, Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that a clause in Oklahoma’s Voter Registration Act of 1910 was unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment. Because the law required literacy tests only for prospective voters whose grandfathers were not able to vote, it applied almost exclusively to African Americans. Black people could also be refused a literacy test for any reason, effectively barring them from voting. This law was one of many attempts by states seeking to indirectly limit Black people’s ability to vote in direct contradiction of the Fifteenth Amendment. While not completely outlawing literacy tests or other voter suppression tactics, the case made it clear that racially discriminatory electoral laws would be subject to close inspection from then on.

Controversies

Surprisingly, many notable suffragettes, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, believing that African American men should not get the right to vote before white women. Most of the Democratic Party, particularly southerners, opposed extending suffrage to anyone beyond white men. Thus, there were both complaints that the Amendment didn’t go far enough and that it went too far.

After the Amendment’s passage, voting rights were hindered by rampant voter suppression, which started in the late 1870s and became very popular among state and local legislatures, particularly those in the South. Poll taxes and literacy tests were implemented that intentionally discriminated against Black people, most of whom were poor and lacked access to basic education after generations of enslavement. As the years passed, even wealthy African Americans were told they were not allowed to pay the tax, and those who were college-educated were often denied the literacy tests or told they failed. Until the poll tax was eliminated by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of literacy tests, the Fifteenth Amendment was essentially null and void in some places. 

Even today, the prevalence of modern voter suppression tactics disproportionately impact African Americans and prevent many from casting their ballots. African Americans are more likely than their White counterparts to live in gerrymandered legislative districts that take away the power of their vote. They are more likely to lack a government-issued form of identification, meaning that in many states, they can be turned away at the polls under the guise of preventing voter fraud. They are more likely to have their names wrongfully removed from voter rolls, especially in regions with histories of racial discrimination. Although no state or person is allowed to turn a voter away at the polls solely because of their race or the color of their skin, there are a variety of more subtle discriminatory practices at play that ultimately have the same effect.

Why Care?

Our democracy is most representative when every person has the ability to cast their ballot and make their voice heard in the political process. The Fifteenth Amendment was a landmark civil rights achievement that laid the foundation for African Americans to not only participate politically, but become leaders in government at the local, state, and federal levels. It paved the way for the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and eventually emboldened the civil rights leaders of the 1960s to advocate for justice after promises of equality remained unfulfilled. Despite the progress that has been made, however, racially marginalized populations continue to have their voting rights threatened by legislation that erects targeted barriers to voting at every level. Just as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 combated earlier forms of voter suppression, a new law may be needed to ensure that the right to vote shall truly not be denied or abridged on account of race.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think so many white people were threatened by the idea of African Americans voting? Why do you think their votes continue to be suppressed today?
  2. How did literacy tests and poll taxes subvert the original intention of the Fifteenth Amendment?
  3. How did the Reconstruction Amendments fundamentally change the political and cultural landscape of the United States?

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  1. “15th Amendment.” History.com. 9 Nov. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fifteenth-amendment. 
  2. Parrott-Sheffer, Chelsey. “Fifteenth Amendment: United States Constitution.” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fifteenth-Amendment. 
  3. Gillette, William. The Right to Vote; Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.