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The Promise and Pitfalls of the 15th Amendment Over 150 Years

The amendment gave Black people access to the ballot — but the fight to keep it continues today.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the rati­fic­a­tion of the 15th Amend­ment, which was adop­ted to give Black people access to the ballot after the Civil War. The amend­ment has retained its prom­ise but, unfor­tu­nately, the robust demo­cracy that it envi­sioned remains just out of reach. Today, we should honor the life of the moment­ous amend­ment by remem­ber­ing that the fight to keep it contin­ues.

Case in point: the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). Author­ized by the 15th Amend­ment, the VRA is one of the most consequen­tial laws ever enacted. It dismantled Jim Crow prac­tices that severely restric­ted African-Amer­ican access to the ballot, such as poll taxes and liter­acy tests. For some 50 years, it helped ensure that demo­cracy reflec­ted the coun­try’s diversity.

That all changed with Shelby County v. Holder. The 2013 Supreme Court decision completed a decades long conser­vat­ive effort to dismantle the VRA by gutting the section that required states with a history of voting discrim­in­a­tion to obtain federal approval before chan­ging their voting laws. Chief Justice John Roberts, a long­time crusader against the VRA, wrote the major­ity opin­ion, in which he argued that the law under­mined “the funda­mental prin­ciple of equal sover­eignty” among the states. He also high­lighted the “‘dra­mat­ic’ progress” in minor­ity voting over nearly five decades. In her pres­ci­ent dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Gins­burg analo­gized the major­ity’s approach to “throw­ing away your umbrella in a rain­storm because you are not getting wet.”

Indeed, Amer­ic­ans got soaked. Imme­di­ately after the ruling, states across the coun­try began to enact strict laws designed to make it more diffi­cult for people of color to vote. Lawmakers have denied that their intent was to discrim­in­ate against minor­ity voters, citing imagin­ary voter fraud as their chief justi­fic­a­tion. While we haven’t rever­ted to the level of discrim­in­a­tion seen in the Jim Crow-era, there have been consist­ent efforts to place obstacles between minor­ity voters and the ballot box. And their impact is clear. When pivotal elec­tions come down to a tiny frac­tion of votes cast in just a few states, any suppres­sion can have elec­tion-alter­ing consequences. It paints a bleak picture for our future.

Tragic­ally, fail­ure is noth­ing new to the 15th Amend­ment. One need only look to the amend­ment’s history — which, by its nature, is the story of African-Amer­ican exper­i­ence — to under­stand why. For nearly 250 years, “the pecu­liar insti­tu­tion” of slavery fed into the nation’s boom­ing indus­tries and facil­it­ated its bound­less growth. Even as the coun­try prospered, enslaved people were denied the fruits of their own labor. They were also denied a voice in Amer­ica’s fledgling demo­cracy. This only began to change in the middle of the 19th century, as the abol­i­tion­ist move­ment picked up steam and the United States split in two.

At the close of the Civil War, the nation wrangled with the future of nearly 4 million Black people who, until the adop­tion of the 13th Amend­ment, had been held captive in the South. On the heels of the 13th Amend­ment, which form­ally ended slavery, Congress passed the 14th Amend­ment to guar­an­tee Black people citizen­ship and equal­ity under the law. But suffrage was an entirely separ­ate ques­tion. As lawmakers mapped out plans to reunify the coun­try, extend­ing the right to vote was hardly a prior­ity in the North — even among staunch abol­i­tion­ists.

In the South, however, Black people were voting. In some states — Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, and South Caro­lina — the African-Amer­ican elect­or­ate outnumbered its white coun­ter­part. That’s because in 1867, Congress passed the Recon­struc­tion Acts. The new laws estab­lished, among other things, condi­tions for the former Confed­er­ate states’ return to the Union. Perhaps the most import­ant stip­u­la­tion was that the read­mit­ted states had to draft new consti­tu­tions that guar­an­teed suffrage to citizens regard­less of their race. Mean­while, many states in the North and West were voting down ballot meas­ures to broaden the fran­chise in those regions.

But it didn’t take long for the Radical Repub­lic­ans to recog­nize that for Recon­struc­tion to have a chance, African Amer­ic­ans would have to be able advoc­ate for them­selves in elec­tions. So in 1869, the lame-duck Congress passed the 15th Amend­ment over impas­sioned oppos­i­tion. (Delaware Senator Willard Sauls­bury, for example, called it an “exer­cise of abso­lute and tyran­nical power.”) The amend­ment, which was rati­fied in less than a year, made it illegal to “deny” or “abridge” the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previ­ous condi­tion of servitude” and gave Congress the power to enforce the new law. Soon, Black people began voting not only in the South but through­out the coun­try. They were elec­ted to statewide office and were even sent to Wash­ing­ton to repres­ent Amer­ic­ans in both houses of Congress.

However, in two key respects, the 15th Amend­ment came up short.

The first complic­a­tion was sex. While the original Consti­tu­tion was writ­ten by men and impli­citly for men (e.g. “a Pres­id­ent . . . shall hold his office during the term of four years”), that under­stand­ing was made expli­cit for the first time after the Civil War. With the adop­tion of the 14th Amend­ment, federal lawmakers were author­ized to reduce the size of a state’s repres­ent­a­tion if it denied voting rights to any “male inhab­it­ants” over 21 years old. In other words, the Consti­tu­tion called on states to extend suffrage rights to men and men alone.

Less than a year later, when Congress proposed the 15th Amend­ment, its text banned discrim­in­a­tion in voting, but only based on “race, color, or previ­ous condi­tion of servitude.” Despite some vali­ant efforts by activ­ists, “sex” was left out, reaf­firm­ing the fact that women lacked a consti­tu­tional right to vote. The omis­sion promp­ted a schism in the woman suffrage move­ment. Some suffra­gists, like Lucre­tia Mott, accep­ted it as polit­ical real­ity and hailed the adop­tion of the amend­ment as a victory. Others, like Eliza­beth Cady Stan­ton, were much less forgiv­ing. They opposed the 15th Amend­ment, arguing — at times in strident racist rhet­oric — that white women deserved voting rights before Black men.

Though it took another half century, white women even­tu­ally did win the right to vote. In 1920, when the states rati­fied the 19th Amend­ment, the Consti­tu­tion finally outlawed sex discrim­in­a­tion in the fran­chise. Yet, with the recent resur­gence of women’s activ­ism, and in light of Virgini­a’s recent rati­fic­a­tion of the Equal Rights Amend­ment, it’s worth ponder­ing today whether these gains could have been real­ized sooner. At the same time, it’s import­ant to under­stand that the 19th Amend­ment left Black women behind.

This is a consequence of the second fail­ure related to the 15th Amend­ment: the coun­try ignored it.

Recon­struc­tion ended in 1876. From then until the 1960s, the major­ity of Amer­ica’s Black popu­la­tion was preven­ted from voting, as states manu­fac­tured “legal” ways to suppress their regis­tra­tion and turnout without viol­at­ing the 15th Amend­ment. For nearly a century, Jim Crow flour­ished in the South, where most African Amer­ic­ans lived. This only changed with the rise of civil rights move­ment, which achieved a string of historic victor­ies that included the enact­ment of the VRA.

Within four years of the VRA’s enact­ment, Black voter regis­tra­tion rates had surged from 35 percent to 65 percent. But now, in the post-Shelby County era, the VRA is not enough to prevent disen­fran­chise­ment of African Amer­ic­ans and other people of color.

So on the sesqui­cent­en­nial of the 15th Amend­ment, Amer­ic­ans should celeb­rate the incred­ible progress made since the coun­try’s found­ing. But they should also reflect on the rocky route to that progress — and acknow­ledge that there’s much further to go.