African American History Mission in Action

15th Turns 150!

Print shows a parade surrounded by portraits and vignettes of Black life, illustrating rights granted by the 15th amendment.

March 30, 2020, is the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (ratified Feb. 3, 1870), which nationally expanded the right to vote to Black men by making it illegal to prevent people from voting based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Amendment did not pass without a struggle.

Congress had abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment (1865), and secured citizenship with the 14th Amendment (1868). Neither guaranteed the right to vote. 

And in 1868, citizenship didn’t automatically mean the right to vote, yet the presence of new citizens in the form of formerly enslaved people forced Congress to consider what citizenship and voting actually meant. 

Congress encountered several historical problems. First, the right to vote was long thought to have been a privilege, and not an essential element of citizenship. Second, voting rights had been the purview of states, not the Federal government. Based on these understandings, conservative white southerners unleashed an assault on black voting that ranged from bribery to political intimidation to outright violence. 

Black activists and their Republican allies in the south and the north pushed back. 

Congress passed laws that expanded the authority of the federal government to protect the rights of African Americans, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment. Congress also realized that it needed to explicitly address voting rights based on race and that they could no longer leave it to individual states.

The 15th Amendment was the answer: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 

However, while the intent of the 15th Amendment was to expand access for Black men to vote, the compromises represented in its final form had unintended consequences. For example, women’s rights activists, many of whom had also been active abolitionists, advocated for a universal expansion of voting rights, regardless of race or gender. The Women’s Rights Movement split when discussing whether they would support a 15th Amendment that didn’t include them, and it took another 50 years of their work to achieve the 19th Amendment (1920, but many women of color still experienced voting discrimination for many years after). 

The language of the 15th Amendment also provided a loophole for racial discrimination, even though its intent was to prevent it. States began to impose literacy tests, poll taxes, and understanding clauses designed to target black voters, but without mentioning race. And when conservative white southerners regained control of state governments and influence in national politics by the late 1870s, Congress lost interest in enforcing the amendment’s voting rights guarantees. 

The 15th Amendment was the answer: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 

Ninety-five years later, the activism of the Civil Rights movement raised national public awareness of the (often violent) lengths to which the segregated South went to prevent African Americans from voting. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (1965) under its authority to enforce the 15th Amendment, which made those forms of voter suppression illegal. In 2013, the Supreme Court controversially overturned part of the Voting Rights Act’s provisions for Congress to enforce that legislation, and resulted in other states debated restrictions on voting access. 

For the majority of Americans today, their access to the right to vote has come from the persistent, hard-fought work of others demanding that right throughout our history. 150 years after the 15th Amendment, Americans continue this debate. Who should have the right to vote? What restrictions on that right should we allow?

The right to vote is enshrined in the Constitution, but is not enforced without a struggle.

Use your Right to Vote:

Vote.org: Register to vote, or check your existing registration
The non-partisan website links to everything you need to know for your state about how to register to vote, check your existing registration, request absentee ballots, or what you need to bring with you to your polling place. 

To Learn More: 

Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, by Eric Foner (2019)
Foner explores how the development of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments fundamentally shifted the practical role of the federal government and people’s views of the Constitution as Americans debated expanded rights in the wake of the Civil War and Emancipation. 

Shaping the US Constitution: The 15th Amendment (by the Library of Virginia)
A good summary of the politics and debates about voting rights for African American men, with links to excellent primary sources, including a broadside emphasizing the importance of the amendment and a lithographic of African Americans celebrating the amendment’s ratification. 

Reconstruction: America after the Civil War (by PBS, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
Engrossing 4-hour miniseries delving into the historical, political, and social context of Reconstruction and how the events of that period still shape our lives today. Check out the excellent classroom resources, including a unit on the 15th Amendment. Streamable on PBS.org or anywhere you stream PBS content. 

The Fifteenth Amendment and Voting Rights for African Americans (by The GIlder Lehrman Institute of American History)
Online exhibit of the history and vision for the 15th Amendment, using a popular celebratory lithograph about the amendment. Also search through other resources about the amendment and voting rights, such as the article about citizens as agents of constitutional change (by Linda R. Monk) or this video about the birth of civil rights (by Eric Foner).

Constitutional podcast (by the Washington Post, hosted by Lillian Cunningham) 
Podcast series that digs into the history, subsequent interpretations, and enduring impacts of the different elements of the Constitution. Various episodes, such as the episode “Race,” touch on the 15th Amendment and Reconstruction. 

Interactive Voting Rights Timeline (by KQED public broadcasting)
Interactive timeline of voting rights — including who could vote and who could not — since the founding era. You can also find a PDF of the timeline here. Also, check out a similar illustrated interactive timeline here (by AlJazeera).

Expanding Voting Rights lessons and resources (by Teaching Tolerance)
Collection of lesson plans and related resources that provide a good overview of voting rights since the founding era up through the present, including the expansion of rights to African Americans, women, poor white people, and youth. Includes links to primary sources and great videos. Also, a good quick summary here (by Teaching American History), and also here with book recommendations for youth (by the Zinn Education Project).