The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
In most democracies, including the United States, the right to vote means a citizen’s right to periodically choose in free elections among candidates who offer different views. Although the freedom to vote is considered a foundation of democracy, nowhere did the original U.S. Constitution name voting as a right of U.S. citizens. Rather the right was implied (not directly expressed but suggested) in several sections of the Constitution. For example, the Constitution guarantees that every state will have a republican form of government (government officials are elected by voters), and it states that the U.S. House of Representatives is “chosen … by the People of the several States.” It also refers to the election of senators and the president. The matter of who would have the right to vote was left entirely to individual states, which determined their own sets of voter qualifications, even for national elections. The Fifteenth Amendment was passed directly to address voting rights of the freed slaves. The amendment’s brief text focused on the single issue of equal treatment for all races. The matter of establishing voter qualifications was still left strictly to the states; hence, in reality, the amendment’s intensions were long ignored.
Submitted by Congress to the states on February 26, 1869.
Ratified by the required three-fourths of states (twenty-eight of thirty-seven) on February 17, 1870. Declared to be part of the Constitution on March 30, 1870.
Nevada, March 1, 1869; West Virginia, March 3, 1869; Illinois, March 5, 1869; Louisiana, March 5, 1869; North Carolina, March 5, 1869; Michigan, March 8, 1869; Wisconsin, March 9, 1869; Maine, March 11, 1869; Massachusetts, March 12, 1869; Arkansas, March 15, 1869; South Carolina, March 15, 1869; Pennsylvania, March 25, 1869; New York, April 14, 1869 (and the legislature of the same State passed a resolution January 5, 1870, to withdraw its consent to it, which action it rescinded on March 30, 1870); Indiana, May 14, 1869; Connecticut, May 19, 1869; Florida, June 14, 1869; New Hampshire, July 1, 1869; Virginia, October 8, 1869; Vermont, October 20, 1869; Missouri, January 7, 1870; Minnesota, January 13, 1870; Mississippi, January 17, 1870; Rhode Island, January 18, 1870; Kansas, January 19, 1870; Ohio, January 27, 1870 (after having rejected it on April 30, 1869); Georgia, February 2, 1870; Iowa, February 3, 1870.
Origins of the Fifteenth Amendment
After the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), only males with property could vote in the newly formed United States. This practice of equating ownership of property with the right to vote followed a long English tradition dating back to the fifteenth century. Because land was readily available in the new nation, many men held land and could therefore vote. Leaders of the new nation, among them the framers of the Constitution, feared that giving too much power to the citizens could result in mob rule. Therefore, they believed some restrictions should be imposed on the right to vote. The prevailing belief was that owning property would give men a greater stake in society and, consequently, make them more responsible to act in the public interest at the voting booth. Early citizens considered voting a privilege, not a right.
In keeping with the concept of federalism that called for splitting governmental powers between the state and national governments, the framers in 1787 largely left it to the states to determine who could vote. The states uniformly applied the property owning standard. Hence the right to vote was limited to those individuals owning property, and even those voting citizens could only directly elect their state legislators and representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives. To check the power of the people, state legislators elected the president and U.S. senators.
Some free blacks in northern states had property and could vote in the first decades of the nation’s history. The rise of Jacksonian democracy (named after President Andrew Jackson) in the 1830s, which emphasized populist beliefs (the common citizens should hold greater political power), led to demands for greater voting rights and giving common people a greater say in government. Ironically, as voting requirements eased in response to the growing unpopularity of the property requirements, blacks were not able to benefit from the laxer requirements. Several factors were responsible. In general, many whites distrusted blacks and claimed they lacked civic virtue. In addition, during this time Democratic Party politicians held considerable power and opposed ending slavery. Therefore, they did not want to give blacks the opportunity to support antislavery candidates at the ballot box.
By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, most states prohibited the black vote outright or enforced property or education qualifications that ruled out most free blacks. Even while antislavery sentiments grew and the free black population increased, support for black suffrage (right to vote in public elections) did not significantly grow. Thus, states were free to restrict the black vote however they saw fit. As an example, New York adopted a new constitution in 1846 dropping property qualifications for whites but not for blacks.
Following the Civil War (1861–65), many whites, particularly in the South, wanted to keep the freed blacks as close to servitude as possible despite adoption in 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. Only in Tennessee, where Republicans controlled the government, did blacks have the right to vote in the South. The Democrats blocked the black vote elsewhere in the southern region. Blacks could vote in New England states, except for Connecticut, and in several midwestern states. In early 1867, Congress passed the First Military Reconstruction Act, which made the granting of voting rights to black males a requirement for readmission to the Union in ten southern states. Limited in its extent, the act did not apply to states outside the South where blacks did not have the vote.
By the end of 1867, under the federal army rule of Reconstruction, about 700,000 southern black men were registered to vote. These newly registered voters helped select delegates to form new state governments and elect officials to run the new governments.
In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment, the second of the three Civil War amendments, was adopted. It extended to citizens a broad range of constitutional protections from state government actions. However, the amendment avoided reference to voting rights because little support existed nationally to grant black Americans the right to vote. The responsibility to determine voter qualifications remained with the states.
Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment
The black vote helped elect Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) as president in 1868. Though Grant won handily, Democrats were able to gain seats in Congress. Given the persistent efforts of white southern Democrats to discourage black Republican votes through intimidation, the Republicans decided something had to be done before the newly elected Democrats could take the seats they had won and take control of Congress. In early 1869, a new constitutional amendment was proposed stimulated by the idea of equal access to the voting booth.
At the time Congress was divided largely into three political factions: (1) those opposing any other amendment addressing minority rights after the recent passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments; (2) those wanting suffrage for all males with no voting requirements; and, (3) those in the middle wishing to ban racial discrimination in voting but still leave determination of voting requirements to the states. The latter group prevailed.
Anticipating a difficult political battle, compromises were made to increase public acceptance of the amendment. A proposed guarantee that some blacks would hold office was dropped in the final draft as well as a ban on state literacy, property, and nativity (place of birth) tests.
Not surprisingly, the fight for ratification (state approval) followed party lines. The Republicans supported the amendment; the Democrats opposed it. However, ratification of the amendment by southern states was assured because it was required for readmission to the Union. The fight was most dramatic in the border states of the lower North, which had a mixture in their state legislatures of Republicans and Democrats. Nevertheless, after intense debates, the amendment was formally ratified on March 30, 1870, guaranteeing citizens the privilege of voting free of any restrictions based upon race, color, or previous servitude.
With ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the black male vote expanded to include seventeen more northern and border states. It also reaffirmed voting rights in those states that recognized the black vote. Republicans vigorously touted the Fifteenth Amendment as the ultimate achievement of Reconstruction.
The Fifteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court
The rights and protections expressed in the Fifteenth Amendment appear rather brief and straightforward. Section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits state or federal governments from denying U.S. citizens the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Section 2 grants Congress powers to pass laws enforcing section 1. However, as was the case with the three Civil War amendments in general, progress in enforcing the new rights came very slowly.
Section 1: Prohibiting Racial Discrimination in Voting
Section 1’s promotion of the black vote was met with strong resistance throughout the South. Intimidation became increasingly violent by such white supremacist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, which aimed to prevent blacks from voting. The Klan’s hooded midnight riders terrorized blacks by burning crops, and whipping, clubbing, and murdering victims. Congress passed laws in the 1870s banning terrorist activities and establishing stiff penalties for interfering with black voters, but they proved difficult to enforce in many areas sympathetic to the white terrorists.
As Reconstruction was drawing to an end in 1877, efforts to enforce social and economic change dwindled. It soon became evident that section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment on its own was ineffective. Blacks’ voting rights began steadily eroding even in the northern border states.
By 1900, all eleven former Confederate states made it virtually impossible for blacks to vote. The southern states carefully worded their voting requirements to avoid obvious Fifteenth Amendment section 1 violations. As long as state voter eligibility requirements did not openly discriminate on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” they were not considered in violation of the amendment. Though appearing to apply to all men equally, in actuality the requirements were directed against people of color. States used a variety of measures to exclude the black vote: literacy tests, white-only primaries, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses (rules designed specifically to exclude some people). These techniques proved successful in excluding blacks from political participation until the mid-1960s. Consequently, whites completely dominated all levels of government in the southern states for at least a century following the Civil War.
Grandfather clauses and literacy tests
By the 1890s, grandfather clauses and literacy tests were a popular combination of voter eligibility requirements in the South. Grandfather clauses required all voters to show that their ancestors were eligible to vote in 1866. Blacks in 1890 had no ancestors who were eligible to vote in 1866. If people could not show proof of 1866 voting ancestors, they had to pass a literacy (ability to read) test. First adopted by Mississippi in 1890, this strategy rapidly spread throughout the South. Nearly all black men were disqualified from voting. As was often the case, most whites did not have to take literacy tests, even though many could not read, because typically most white men had ancestors eligible to vote in 1866. Black voter registration in Mississippi dropped from approximately 70 percent of black adult males in 1890 to under 6 percent by 1892. When challenged in courts, states contended the Fifteenth Amendment was not violated because all voter applicants had to either meet the requirements of the grandfather clause or pass a literacy test. The Supreme Court was of no help, ruling that literacy tests as well as poll taxes (fees charged at the voting place) were legal in Williams v. Mississippi (1898) .
The National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established in 1909, began pursuing voter rights through the court system. In 1915 in Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional. This was the first such discriminatory voting rule to be held unconstitutional. Oklahoma had argued that no violation of section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment existed because race was not mentioned as a qualification in its state amendment allowing grandfather clauses. The Court, however, stated that grandfather clauses perpetuated (continued) “the very condition which the Amendment was intended to destroy.” Voting equality, the Court said, is not based on whether a person’s grandfather was free or a slave. Despite the end of grandfather clauses, literacy tests continued. Decades later in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959), the Court further affirmed that states can legally impose requirements to determine who is qualified to vote as long as the requirements do not discriminate as to race, color, or previous servitude. Such requirements can include age, residence, and criminal record.
With the loss of grandfather clauses, white-only primaries arrived as the next barrier raised to block black voters. Even if a black American passed the literacy tests and gained the right to vote in the early twentieth century, his vote was usually insignificant due to his inability to participate in primary elections. Under laws adopted by most southern states, political parties could set their own rules for membership in their party. The pro-equal rights Republican Party was essentially nonexistent in the South and the Democratic Party organized in each state as private clubs excluding all blacks. Only members, all white, of the Democratic Party were allowed to vote for candidates in its primaries. Because the Democratic Party overwhelmingly dominated in the South, whoever won in the Democratic primaries would readily win the general election. Any black votes cast in the general election were, therefore, usually meaningless.
Cases challenging the practice of white-only primaries began reaching the Supreme Court, but they brought little relief for black voters. In 1927 the Court in Nixon v. Herndon did ban state-approved white primaries. But in reaction, the political parties broke their formal connections with the states and the white-only primaries continued. When challenged, the court unanimously ruled in Grovey v. Townsend (1935) that because the political parties had become private clubs of volunteers and were no longer a part of state government, their actions were not restricted by the Constitution.
Some progress was made in United States v. Classic (1941) in which the Court first recognized that the primaries were increasingly becoming a key part of the formal state election process. Three years later in the landmark case of Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Court, using section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment, held that voting in primary elections was a right protected by the Constitution. Primaries were viewed as state-approved elections. The earlier Grovey decision was reversed and private white-only primaries were considered unconstitutional. The decision was later reaffirmed in Terry v. Adams (1953) finally putting an end to white-only primaries. According to the Court, the Fifteenth Amendment guarantee established a national policy against voting discrimination involving all elections determining national policy or selecting public officials at the national, state, or local levels. Even when private organizations act in place of the state, they are subject to constitutional restrictions.
With the decline of white-only primaries, another common barrier to black and poor white voters arrived in the form of the poll tax, a fee charged at polling (voting) places. The poll tax, like grandfather clauses and literacy tests, was another attempt to avoid Fifteenth Amendment violations on the basis that it was applied to blacks and whites alike.
In the late eighteenth century, the poll tax was widely considered a legitimate way to raise government revenue. By the mid-nineteenth century, with blacks unable to vote anyway, poll taxes had grown unpopular and disappeared. Their popularity returned by the early twentieth century as some states began to see poll taxes as a means to exclude blacks from the political process. Many black Americans could not afford to pay the tax. The Court in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937) upheld the poll tax as consistent with section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment because it was applied to black and white voters. Public opinion again grew against the tax in the 1940s. But it was not until 1964 that Congress was able to pass and the states ratify the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which abolished the poll tax in federal elections. For a brief period, states continued to impose poll taxes for state and local elections. Then the Court in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966) finally struck down all poll taxes, basing its decision on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, not the Fifteenth Amendment.
As the earlier barriers to voting were gradually eliminated by court decisions, an increasing number of black Americans were able to vote. A new form of barrier, manipulating voting districts, was devised to control the effectiveness of the black vote. In the United States, each county, ward, or township is divided into voting districts called precincts. Eligible voters can only vote in the precinct in which they live. Election officials verify that the voters live in the precinct and count the votes after the polls close. Therefore, how voting district boundaries are drawn greatly influences who may vote in a particular precinct. District boundaries could be redrawn by state legislatures to split up the black vote so as to make it ineffective.
The issue of changing, or redrawing, voting district boundaries came under court scrutiny in Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960). The Court ruled that voting districts redrawn to ensure white political domination violated the Fifteenth Amendment. However, when the Court issued its landmark voting rights decision in Baker v. Carr (1962), it relied more heavily on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause in ruling that federal courts could hear cases challenging how legislative voting districts are drawn. The Court in Baker ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment applied more appropriately to issues involving false counts of black voter ballots, stuffing ballot boxes, or ignoring ballots from certain black voter precincts.
Section 2: Enforcement by Appropriate Legislation
Immediately following ratification, Congress exercised its newly granted powers under section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment by passing the Enforcement Act of 1870. The act prohibited any governmental or private actions that interfere with rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
However, the courts interpreted Congress’ authority in section 2 of the amendment very narrowly (limited meaning or effect). The first case involving voting rights and the enforcement act under the Fifteenth Amendment was United States v. Reese (1876). In this case, which involved a Kentucky municipal election, the Court ruled that the amendment did not apply to state and local elections, and it also held that the amendment did not actually grant a right to vote. Rather, it merely banned racial discrimination in voting requirements. The Court held that the amendment did “not confer the right [to vote] … upon any one” but rather provided “the citizens of the United States with a new constitutional right which is … exemption [freedom] from discrimination in the exercise of elective franchise on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In another decision that year, United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the Court reemphasized that the federal government was responsible for protecting citizens from racial discrimination in voting and the states determine who has the right to vote.
The Court’s Narrow View of Voting Rights
Immediately upon ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, Congress used its newly granted authority to pass the Enforcement Act of 1870. Section 2 of the act required that local elections be conducted without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude, similar wording to the Fifteenth Amendment. Section 3 prohibited the refusal to count votes of voters.
In Kentucky, a state electoral official refused to count the vote of a black American in a municipal election. The official was arrested and charged with violating the enforcement act. The case of United States v. Reese went to the Supreme Court and was argued in January 1875.
More than a year after arguments, the Court ruled in March 1876 that section 3 of the act was invalid because it did not specifically refer to people of color as section 2 had. Consequently, the Court held that Congress had not followed the intent of the Fifteenth, and, therefore, had exceeded its authority under the amendment. The Court stated that the amendment did not establish a right to vote, but rather only addressed the issue of racial discrimination related to voting, that is, citizens could not be excluded from voting on racial grounds.
The decision represented the Court’s position of primarily applying the amendment to federal elections, and taking very narrow interpretations of congressional powers to enforce the amendment in state and local elections. Because of the Reese decision, the Fifteenth Amendment initially had far less impact on U.S. society than it could have. The ruling opened the door to southern states to deny voting opportunities to black Americans through means such as literacy tests and white-only primaries in state and local elections through the first half of the twentieth century. Congress repealed other sections of the enforcement act in 1894. One section of the ill-fated act did live on: the prohibition of conspiracies by private people to block citizens from enjoying their constitutional rights. Through time this basic prohibition was broadened to include all rights and privileges granted under the Constitution. It persisted through the twentieth century.
These narrow interpretations of the Fifteenth left open the possibility for states to devise all types of barriers to discourage black voters through the next several decades, such as grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and all white primaries.
One of the few court decisions favorable to the Fifteenth Amendment came in ex parte Yarbrough (1884). In that case the Court upheld the convictions of Ku Klux Klan members who blocked a black man’s attempt to vote in a federal congressional election. This ruling proved an exception in upholding federal authority over the actions of private individuals during the late nineteenth century. Justice Samuel F. Miller (1816–1890) wrote that the Fifteenth Amendment does “substantially confer on the Negro the right to vote.” This broader interpretation of the Fifteenth was largely ignored in later rulings.
For more than a half-century, the narrow interpretations of Congress’ power in section 2 prevailed, and no major laws protecting black voting rights were passed. The civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s dramatically increased public awareness of racial discrimination in the United States. Congress passed civil rights acts in 1957 and 1960, although they were not as strong concerning the black vote as many believed they should have been. The 1957 Civil Rights Act prohibited private acts of intimidation or coercion that interfered with citizens voting in federal elections. The act also gave the U.S. attorney general power to obtain injunctions (court orders to stop certain actions) against discriminatory acts by private parties regardless of the nature of the election. The 1960 Civil Rights Act expanded the attorney general’s authority beyond specific individual incidents. The act gave the attorney general authority to identify areas where patterns of voter discrimination were occurring and, if needed, authorized the use of court-appointed officials to guide voter registration in those areas.
These new attorney general powers were upheld and expanded by the Supreme Court in several rulings. For example, the Court in United States v. Raines (1960) ruled state election officials were subject to Fifteenth Amendment prohibitions on racial discrimination. Then a United States v. Mississippi (1965) ruling supported the attorney general’s authority under the civil rights acts to sue state election officials for Fifteenth Amendment violations.
In general, however, court rulings involving voting rights still remained narrow. The Court in Harman v. Forssenius (1965) ruled that even though the right to vote for a candidate of one’s choice is a fundamental right and the essence of a democratic society with a representative government, the Fifteenth Amendment did not protect people from private discriminatory conduct. With this continued weak application of the Fifteenth, understanding tests grew in popularity in the South to restrict black votes. The tests applied by states required voter applicants to show that they understood and could explain sections of the state or federal constitution selected by the testing official. The standards for selecting the sections individuals should explain and for grading the results were very subjective (open to individual interpretation) and often discriminatory. When challenged, the Court in Louisiana v. United States (1965) banned subjectively applied understanding tests. The Court also required that any new tests devised by a state must be given to all its voters, not just new ones, to guarantee the same standards were being applied to all.
Congress passes major voting rights law
In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) led a march of 3,200 black protesters and white sympathizers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest denial of voting rights to blacks. The public was greatly alarmed by Alabama state troopers assaulting a peaceful voting rights march. Congress took action and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, largely founded on authority of section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. Campaigning for passage of the act, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1994; served 1963–69) told a joint session of Congress, “Unless the right to vote be secured and undenied, all other rights are insecure and subject to denial for all citizens. The challenge of this right is a challenge to America itself.” The 1965 act, expanding on the prohibitions of the previous civil rights acts, revolutionized southern politics. Congress had finally effectively exercised its authority to protect the voting rights of minorities almost a full century after adoption of the Fifteen Amendment.
The act initially focused on seven southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) and outlawed restrictive voting requirements that denied the right of a U.S. citizen to vote because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. A target of the act was any “device” associated with a requirement to test reading, writing, comprehension, or interpretation skills, or to demonstrate a certain knowledge or determine good moral character. It gave courts the authority to review election districts that were racially discriminating. It also required the use of smaller voting districts to improve representation of blacks.
The act prohibited literacy tests in federal, state, local, general, and primary elections in any state or county where voter registration was particularly low. In certain counties, federal officials became responsible for guiding voter registration to ensure fairness in determining voter eligibility. The act also required the seven states to obtain federal approval before making any changes to their election systems such as relocating polling sites, changing ballot forms, and altering voting districts. For example, any changes in voting districts had to receive approval of the U.S. attorney general or U.S. district court to make sure the reapportionment “does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying … the right to vote on account of race or color.”
Civil rights movement
Although landmark Supreme Court decisions in constitutional law often inspire changes to longstanding injustices in U.S. society, sometimes public events lead to major change where congressional action or a court decision could not. Perhaps one of the more dramatic examples of private citizens influencing constitutional law was the drive by black Americans for equal voting rights.
Despite passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 that established voting rights for black citizens, little progress in freedom to exercise voting rights occurred for the next ninety years. Improved prospects for change came in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas landmark decision striking down segregation in public elementary schools. However, it was evident that black activism was necessary to force the government to extend racial reform in Brown to other aspects of life. What is referred to as the civil rights movement was born. The movement represented a “freedom struggle” by black Americans and like-minded others to gain racial equality and freedom from discrimination, including equal opportunity in employment, education, and housing, the right to vote, and equal access to public facilities.
A series of events soon unfolded that defined the movement. In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white man as required by city law. A rally in support of Parks was held at the Holt Street Baptist Church. A 27-year-old preacher from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church named Martin Luther King Jr. attended. King gave an inspirational speech calling for nonviolent, civil disobedience tactics (peacefully not obeying and openly resisting certain laws) in contrast to the Ku Klux Klan violence. By late 1956, the Supreme Court ruled the Montgomery bus law unconstitutional.
With momentum established, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to provide leadership to the movement. The high point of the civil rights movement occurred on August 28, 1963, when 250,000 people participated in a march on Washington urging the federal government to support desegregation (end of racial separation in public places) and protect voting rights. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech calling for nonviolent direct action and voter registration. Congress responded with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though sweeping in prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodations such as hotels, theaters, buses, and railroad cars, the act did not address voting rights.
A campaign grew to register black voters throughout the South. In response, white violence escalated. Medgar Evers, a black leader, was shot and killed in Jackson, Mississippi, while organizing a boycott to protest voter discrimination. In June 1964, three students, two of them white, who were promoting voter registration, were murdered in Mississippi. That shocked the nation. In 1965 King led a march protesting voting restrictions from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. After first being attacked by mounted police using tear gas and clubs, the march was finally held with court permission. More than 25,000 people joined the march. They were protected by 3,000 federal troops. Congress responded with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act expanded voting rights to blacks by prohibiting use of literacy tests and other forms of discriminatory qualifications. The act gave oversight of state voting laws to the federal government.
King, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his leadership role in the movement, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. With its leader gone and unity no longer evident, the civil rights movement’s national thrust faded. No other twentieth-century social movement had as profound an effect on U.S. political and legal institutions.
Voting rights act challenged
Southern states considered the 1965 Voting Rights Act an attack on states’ rights (strong state legal powers as opposed to federal powers) and soon the act was challenged in the courts. The resulting landmark decision came in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) in which the Supreme Court ruled the act was consistent with Congress’ power under section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment to eliminate racial discrimination in voting. Expanding on the act, the Court outlined broad congressional powers to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. Congress could even decide whether a certain region of the nation had widespread voter discrimination and focus on correcting that region. Such an area could be where low minority voting registration rates were present and registration tests are applied.
Within a few years, the rise in black voter registration was dramatic. In Mississippi alone, black registration rose to almost 60 percent by 1968. Challenges to literacy tests continued. In Gaston County v. United States (1969) the Court ruled that past discrimination in the educational system might make the use of literacy tests in certain areas inappropriate. In 1970, Congress, under its section 2 authority, suspended use of literacy tests nationwide for five years. The Court upheld this suspension in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970).
Revisions in 1975 and 1982 expanded the Voting Rights act. The changes required that election materials be provided in languages other than English in certain areas. An amendment in 1982 allowed individuals to sue for Voting Rights Act violates even if there was no discriminatory intent proven. The 1982 amendment allowed individuals to prove a Voting Rights Act violation if they could show a disproportionate impact on a particular group of voters.
Passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), eliminated the restrictive voter registration requirements. Citizens may register to vote when applying for a state driver’s license or register at a polling place with a driver’s license and two personal witnesses.
Congress’ powers expanded
Other Court decisions related to the Fifteenth Amendment followed, further expanding Congress’ powers under section 2. Hadnott v. Amos (1969) even addressed candidate rights under the Fifteenth Amendment by declaring candidate requirements cannot be based on race. In City of Richmond v. United States (1975), the Court ruled that state attempts to discriminate against blacks are unconstitutional regardless of whether discrimination actually occurs.
The Court ruled in City of Rome v. United States (1980) that although an intent to discriminate might be necessary to prove a violation of section 1, Congress had the power under section 2 to prohibit all electoral practices that result in discrimination regardless of whether they were intended. Congress only has to prove a legitimate purpose for a voting law to be constitutionally acceptable under section 2 of the amendment. By the end of the twentieth century, general federal oversight of state voting policies had become widely acceptable.
Summing the Parts of the Fifteenth Amendment
In addressing the voting rights of citizens, section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment authorized courts to strike down state laws that denied voting rights due to race. Section 2 gave Congress broad powers to pass laws enforcing section 1’s ban on racial discrimination in voting. However, congressional efforts to enforce the amendment were immediately met with adverse Supreme Court rulings. For almost a century, state legislatures in the South and elsewhere adopted a series of different measures designed to limit the black vote. Finally, influenced by the civil rights movement, Congress took more assertive steps in ending discriminatory voting practices, making it easier for blacks to register and vote.
The Voting Rights Act in 1965, passed under its authority of section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, for the first time gave the federal government power traditionally left to the states to operate election processes. Passage of the 1965 act broke down voting barriers, leading to significantly higher voter registration levels among blacks and eventually to the election of many black Americans to public offices in areas previously dominated by whites.
Early Twenty-first Century Controversies Involving the Voting Rights Act
While the 39th Congress forged the Fifteenth Amendment during Reconstruction to assist the newly freed slaves, the Fifteenth Amendment is not confined to the dustbin of history. It has relevance in the early 2000s. Two prime examples are whether states violate Fifteenth Amendment principles when they limit felons from voting and whether legislators violate such principles when they re-draw election districts in such a fashion as to dilute the vote of particular minority groups.
Felon Disenfranchisement Laws
Nearly all states have passed felon disenfranchisement statutes. The idea is that certain individuals, through their criminal conduct, forfeit certain rights afforded to law-abiding citizens. However, some contend that such statutes have a disproportionate impact on certain minority groups and, thus, violate the Voting Rights Act and the spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Lawsuits have been filed in the federal courts, challenging several state felony disenfranchisement laws. While the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a fourteenth equal-protection challenge to a felony disenfranchisement law in Richardson v. Ramirez (1974), such challenges can be filed under the Voting Rights Act. These suits allege that such laws violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. For example, in Farakkhan v. Washington, several inmates challenged the Washington state law, alleging that it amounted to race-based vote denial. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “Although states may deprive felons of the right to vote without violating the Fourteenth Amendment, Richardson v. Ramirez, when felon disenfranchisement results in denial of the right to vote or vote dilution on account of race or color, Section 2 affords disenfranchised felons the means to seek redress.” As of 2007, challenges to these felon voting laws mostly had failed, but the issue remained hotly debated, particularly in a society in which there are racial disparities in felony convictions.
Vote Dilution Cases
Another related issue concerns whether the drawing of congressional districts in a race-based manner violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Throughout history, legislators from both political parties have engaged in gerrymandering (redrawing election lines in such a manner to favor their particular political party). Sometimes interested groups have filed vote-dilution cases, claiming that the legislative manipulating and altering of voting lines violates the Voting Rights Act.
In League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Texas legislature impermissibly drew election district lines in such a manner as to dilute the Latino vote, but this only applied to District 23, where “The changes to District 23 undermined the progress of a racial group that has been subject to significant voting-related discrimination and that was becoming increasingly politically active and cohesive,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. “The State chose to break apart a Latino opportunity district to protect the incumbent congressman from the growing dissatisfaction of the cohesive and politically active Latino community in the district. In the other Texas districts where this type of redistricting was under review, the Court let the redistricting stand due to insufficient evidence of partisan gerrymandering.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Banfield, Susan. The Fifteenth Amendment: African-American Men’s Right to Vote. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.
Clayton, Dewey M. African Americans and the Politics of Congressional Redistricting. New York: Garland Publications, 2000.
Darling, Marsh. Race, Voting, Redistricting and the Constitution: Sources and Exploration of the Fifteenth Amendment (Controversies in Constitutional Law). New York: Routledge, 2001.
Mathews, John. Legislative and Judicial History of the Fifteenth Amendment. Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2001.
Rush, Mark E. Voting Rights and Redistricting in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
“Constitutional law: Voting Rights, Native Hawaiians: Ninth Circuit Invalidates Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Requirement.” Harvard Law Review 116 (June 2003): 2694–701.
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The Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution makes it illegal for federal and state governments to restrict voting rights based on a citizen's race or color. Ratified (or approved) in 1870, it was the last constitutional amendment adopted during the Reconstruction era after the end of the American Civil War (1861–65).
The politics of equal rights
The Reconstruction Era was a time when the states of the former Confederate States of America rejoined the Union of the United States of America. Congress proposed three constitutional amendments during this time. The Thirteenth Amendment , which the states had ratified by the end of 1865, made slavery illegal. The Fourteenth Amendment , ratified in 1868, defined citizenship in America and made it illegal for states to deny certain rights to their citizens.
The Fourteenth Amendment did not address the right to vote. Whether newly freed slaves and other African Americans would be allowed to vote was a controversial topic in America. African Americans wanted the right to vote. Among white Americans, however, there was not widespread political support for the voting rights of African Americans, even in the North. Many state constitutions excluded African Americans from voting.
The presidential and congressional elections of 1868 helped to change the political situation. African Americans who were allowed to vote tended to support the Republican Party , which had been the party of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), who was called the Great Emancipator. With support from African Americans, Republican Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77), the famous Union general of the Civil War, won the presidential election of 1868 by a slim margin. In the congressional elections, Republicans lost some seats in Congress. These results motivated the Republican Party to fight for voting rights for African Americans to improve election results for the party in the future.
Crafting the Fifteenth Amendment
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican George S. Boutwell (1818–1905) of Massachusetts proposed an amendment to make it illegal for governments to deny the right to vote by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The House approved the idea in January 1869.
Meanwhile in the U.S. Senate, Republican William M. Stewart (1827–1909) of Nevada proposed an amendment that would have protected the right to hold office as well as the right to vote. Henry Wilson (1812–1875) of Massachusetts made a different proposal that would also outlaw voting restrictions based on birthplace, property holdings, education, or religious belief. The Senate ultimately approved Stewart's idea.
On February 24, 1869, the House and Senate formed a conference committee to consider their two proposals. The committee proposed an amendment similar to the one originally introduced by Senator Stewart but without protection for holding office. The House approved the proposal on February 25, and the Senate approved it on February 26, officially offering the Fifteenth Amendment to the nation.
In his first inaugural address in March 1869, President Grant supported the Fifteenth Amendment. To become law, the amendment had to be ratified by at least three-fourths of the states. Not only did Republicans control state legislatures in the North, but they also controlled state legislatures in the South because, from Congress, they controlled the process of Reconstruction. In April 1869, Congress passed a law that required Mississippi , Texas , and Virginia to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union.
By February 1870, twenty-nine states, which equaled the three-fourths requirement, ratified the Fifteenth Amendment. Congress declared the ratification the following month.
Voting rights denied
Despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, states that wanted to deny voting rights to African Americans found ways to do so. Poll taxes made it impossible for poor African Americans to afford to vote. Literacy tests blocked uneducated African Americans from voting. These laws blocked some white Americans from voting too, but they were most often enforced only against African Americans.
The Text of the Fifteenth Amendment
The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution states:
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The U.S. Supreme Court found that poll taxes and literacy tests did not violate any constitutional amendments. As a result, African Americans did not truly have widespread voting rights for over a century after the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. That began to change in the 1960s. The Twenty-fourth Amendment made poll taxes illegal for federal elections. With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress finally began to enforce the true meaning and spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that voting rights shall not be abridged by the federal government or any state "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The amendment reflected the federal government's emergence during Reconstruction as the guarantor of civil rights against state intrusion.
Having granted most southern black men the right to vote, at least temporarily, by the Military Reconstruction
acts of 1867, the Republican majority in Congress wanted to render black suffrage nationwide and permanent. Congressman George S. Boutwell of Massachusetts proposed a constitutional amendment in January 1869. Controversy arose over the wording, with many supporters of civil rights fearing that a vague amendment would permit later disenfranchisement through indirect means.
Other Republicans, however, insisted that northern states be able to restrict suffrage on the basis of literacy and education, often for nativist reasons. In addition, some congressmen feared granting unrestricted authority in this area to the federal government. In response to such concerns, a relatively limited form of the amendment passed Congress in February 1869, over vehement Democratic opposition. It was ratified by the states in March 1870, aided by the presence of Reconstruction governments in most southern states.
A more radical amendment, calling for an end to disenfranchisement based on "race, color, nationality, property, education, or religious beliefs," was rejected, as were feminist calls for women's suffrage. Furthermore, the amendment did not guarantee the right of blacks to hold office.
As proponents of the more radical amendment had feared, southern Democratic state governments did almost eliminate black voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and similar means. The Fifteenth Amendment, however, did permanently secure voting rights in the northern states, several of which did not permit black voting at the time. The amendment was also of long-term significance in that it declared equal suffrage an ideal, if not a reality, in the nation's fundamental law. The effort to actually secure black suffrage took more than this amendment. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought successfully against the many abridgments to black suffrage in the early twentieth century, but it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the vast majority of eligible southern blacks were registered to vote.
See also National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Voting Rights Act of 1965
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Hyman, Harold M. A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution. Boston: Knopf, 1973.
Maltz, Earl M. Civil Rights, the Constitution, and Congress, 1863–1869. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1990.
Malveoux, Julianne. "Are Our Voting Rights at Risk?" Black Issues in Higher Education 21, no. 2 (March 2004): 38.
michael w. fitzgerald (1996)
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1789) guarantees that an American citizen cannot be discriminated against in exercising the right to vote. The amendment was proposed in Congress on February 26, 1869, and ratified by the required number of states on February 3, 1870. The amendment states that 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." Though the language applied to people of all races, it was sometimes called the Black Suffrage (right to vote) Amendment because, during the period in which it was passed, legislators intended to prevent southern states from denying African American citizens the right to vote.
After ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which outlawed slavery throughout the Union, the U.S. Congress made approval of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments a prerequisite for reentry to the Union. Before a southern state could be readmitted, its legislature had to approve both amendments. Congress thus assured that former slaves would be made citizens of both the United States and the state where they lived, that equal rights would be granted to all citizens, and that suffrage (the right to vote) was extended to African American men. Under these conditions all southern states were readmitted to the Union by July 15, 1870.
By the end of the 1800s, however, state legislatures in the South had devised ways to prevent their African American citizens from voting. Methods included instituting a poll tax (requiring a voter to pay a fee in order to cast his vote) and literacy tests, which had to be passed as a prerequisite for voting. Most states also adopted legislation by which voting rights were extended only to those citizens who had been able to vote in 1867—a date when few if any African Americans would have had the right. Because these laws also established high voting requirements for the descendants of men who could not vote in that year, they were called "grandfather clauses."
Attempts to deny citizens the right to vote were made unlawful in 1964 by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (One of the features of that Amendment outlawed the poll tax in federal elections and primaries.) Moreover, in 1966, poll taxes at state and local levels were also declared illegal. Literacy tests and grandfather clauses were also struck down as unconstitutional.
See also: Poll Tax, Thirteenth Amendment
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified by the states in 1870 and also gave Congress the power to enforce such rights against governments that sought to undermine this guarantee through the enactment of appropriate legislation. Enforcement was, however, difficult as states employed grandfather clauses and other eligibility requirements to maintain racial discrimination in the electoral process.