The 15th Amendment: An Explainer

Explainers: Constitution History Racial Justice Voting Rights
The 15th Amendment - Democracy Explainer

What is the 15th Amendment?

The 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution makes it illegal to deny the right to vote to any citizen based on race or “previous condition of servitude” (i.e. formerly enslaved). The Amendment legally extended voting rights to a significantly larger portion of the American population, no longer limiting the right to vote to white, land-owning men; however, for many Black Americans, particularly in the South, the rights protected by the 15th Amendment were only true on paper and did not reflect reality. The Amendment was passed after the Civil War, as the last of the three Reconstruction Amendments, and was ratified on February 3rd, 1870.

What led to the passage of the 15th Amendment?

After the Civil War, the country entered into a period known as Reconstruction that was marked by the question of both 1) how to integrate approximately four million newly freed Black Americans into social, political, and economic systems and 2) how to reintegrate former confederate states into the U.S.

Congress passed a total of four Reconstruction Acts which established military rule over the rebel states and outlined the conditions under which new governments would need to be formed to be readmitted to the Union. Among these conditions, as outlined in the First Reconstruction Act was the ratification of the 14th Amendment and suffrage for all men.

There were a total of three Amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution during the Reconstruction era. The 13th and 14th Amendments, banned slavery and granted citizenship and equal protection for the formerly enslaved African Americans, respectively. The 15th Amendment was passed to protect Black men’s right to vote. 

Note, the 13th Amendment contains an exception that slavery may be used as punishment for a crime, which also becomes relevant to voter suppression as it relates to voter disenfranchisement.

What happened after the passage of the 15th Amendment?

The passage of the 15th Amendment provided an avenue for Black men to have political power for the first time. For a few years during Reconstruction, Black citizens in the South held a majority in the Republican party, which at the time was the more progressive and liberal of the two major political parties. As a result, they were able to use their political power to elect Black men to office. Many states in the South elected their first Black Congressman or Senator, including the first ever Black U.S. Senator, Senator Hiram Revels from Mississippi. The Reconstruction era saw a boom in Black political leadership with about 2,000 Black men elected to public office at the federal, state, and local levels. This is why it is not uncommon for newly elected leaders to be recognized as the ‘first Black person to be elected to [insert political office] since Reconstruction’.

However, in response to the new boom of Black political power, white Southerners became hostile and violent. White supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan targeted and attacked Black political leaders, at least 35 of whom were murdered during this period. In the following few years, through violence and intimidation from white Southerners, white supremacy regained its hold on the South, once again stifling the political power of Black men.

By the late 1870s, after President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South (originally sent to enforce the implementation of the Reconstruction Acts) and Reconstruction came to an end, states began eliminating the rights gained through the 14th and 15th Amendments. This meant that although the 15th Amendment protected the voting rights of Black men in principle, many were no longer able to vote due to state and local law

Throughout the next few decades, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, property owning requirements, and Jim Crow laws prevented Black men from being able to vote. In addition to legal obstacles, white Southerners also threatened and used intimidation to further keep Black men from voting.

When did Black men and women actually gain the right to vote in practice?

It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), nearly 100 years later, that real protections were put in place to ensure the right to vote of Black Americans. After decades of discriminatory policies, intimidation, legal challenges, and violence that prevented Black Americans from voting, particularly in the Southern states, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the VRA to prevent these tactics and protect Black Americans’ freedom to vote.

The 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, has a similar story: while in writing, it grants any citizen the right to vote regardless of sex, in practice, the Amendment only granted white women the right to vote. Black, Indigenous, Latina, and Asian American women were all effectively barred from voting in many places for another 45 years, before they were also granted voting rights through the VRA’s passage in 1965.

What about modern voter suppression?

Attacks on voting rights have increased significantly since 2013 with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the VRA) by eliminating critical protections from discrimination. The Court ruled that a section of the VRA was unconstitutional and needed to be updated by Congress, but over 10 years later, we are still waiting for an update from Congress. Without updates, other sections of the VRA became unenforceable – specifically, a process known as “preclearance” which required states with a history of voter discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing their voting process.

Since the removal of preclearance as a mandatory practice, the floodgates of suppressive voting laws have crashed wide open. Now, states can freely pass discriminatory laws, and those laws can only be challenged as discriminatory and unconstitutional after they have been enacted.

Today, voter suppression takes many forms. It may look like closing polling places in areas with large non-white populations, restrictive photo identification requirements, making early voting and by-mail voting inaccessible, barring polling places on college campuses and more. Legislation like this continues to most greatly affect historically marginalized groups such as Black voters, although the lawmakers may not be quite as explicit about the targets of their laws. These voter suppression laws are being introduced and implemented in states all over the country, as lawmakers continue their attempt to silence voters who do not support them.

What can I do to protect voting rights?

If our votes weren’t powerful, they wouldn’t be trying to take them away.