In 1870, the United States Constitution was amended to include the 15th Amendment, which intended to protect African American men’s voting rights following the Civil War. Despite the amendment, by the late 1870s, discriminatory techniques were being employed to discourage Black Americans, particularly in the South, from exercising their right to vote. Legal impediments at the state and municipal levels were not abolished until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to deny African Americans their right to vote under the 15th Amendment.
What Is the 15th Amendment and What Does It Mean?
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or restricted by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or prior condition of servitude,” according to the 15th Amendment.
Despite the enactment of the amendment, by the late 1870s, discriminatory techniques were being employed to prohibit Black residents, particularly in the South, from exercising their right to vote. Legal impediments at the state and municipal levels were not illegal until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if they deprived African Americans their ability to vote under the 15th Amendment.”
Following the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the Republican-controlled United States Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act over President Andrew Johnson’s veto in 1867. The act separated the South into five military divisions and described the process for establishing new administrations based on universal male suffrage.
With the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, a politically engaged African American population teamed up with white supporters in Southern states to elect the Republican Party to power, ushering in profound changes throughout the South.
By late 1870, all of the former Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union, and largely to the backing of Black voters, the Republican Party had taken control of the majority of them.
Hiram Rhodes Revels, a Republican from Natchez, Mississippi, was elected to the United States Senate in the same year, becoming the first African American to serve in Congress. During Reconstruction, Revels and a dozen other Black men served in Congress, more than 600 in state legislatures, and many more in municipal offices, despite the fact that Black Republicans never received political office in proportion to their enormous electoral majority.
With the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, the Southern Republican Party vanished, and Southern state governments effectively nullified both the 14th Amendment (which guaranteed citizenship and all its privileges to African Americans) and the 15th Amendment, which denied Black citizens in the South the right to vote.
Various discriminatory techniques, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as Jim Crow laws, intimidation, and outright violence, were used to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote in the decades that followed.
1965 Voting Rights Act
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, 1965, with the goal of removing all legal impediments at the state and municipal levels that denied African Americans their right to vote under the 15th Amendment.
The act prohibited the use of literacy tests, established federal control of voter registration in places with less than 50% non-white population, and enabled the US attorney general to examine the use of poll taxes in state and municipal elections.
The 24th Amendment made poll taxes unlawful in federal elections in 1964, while the United States Supreme Court prohibited poll taxes in state elections in 1966.
State and municipal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was lax after its passage, and it was frequently ignored outright, particularly in the South and in areas where the proportion of Black residents in the population was significant and their vote challenged the political status quo.
Nonetheless, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed African Americans the legal ability to challenge voting restrictions, resulting in a significant increase in voter turnout.
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