By April of 1870—152 years ago this month—Secretary of State Hamilton Fish had certified the 15th Amendment. After almost a century of the American experiment in democracy, it finally granted African American men the right to vote. First passed by Congress in February, the Amendment was still subjected to a difficult 2-month ratification process by a number of states. Seven states rejected the amendment (a mix of former Border states, Southern states, Western States, and New Jersey, with its notoriously “long emancipation”), but were ultimately forced to ratify it. Meanwhile, voting rights for Black women would take almost another century to arrive.
Many white abolitionists of the time believed that ratification meant that the battle against slavery was won. White-led abolitionist societies, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s irrepressible Anti-Slavery Society, began to shutter their offices and wind down their newspapers after its passage. President Ulysses Grant declared that the Fifteenth Amendment had “complete[d] the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.” In actual fact, as we know, to counteract Black voters the Jim Crow era soon dawned, marked by the hardening of the America’s racial caste system through discriminatory laws, intimidation, and white supremacist terror. We often think of the Fifteenth Amendment as a promissory note on racial equality, that had to wait to be honored until the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s.
Yet today there are more than 550 bills introduced through 2022 to restrict voting access across at least 40 states, and the Senate’s recent failure to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Advancement Act to defend against this assault, point to the urgency of the Fifteenth Amendment’s unfinished legacy of struggle for multi-racial democracy. The rising wave of attacks on voting rights in America also suggests something more troubling: the very Amendments that ended slavery, such as the Fifteenth, were actually complicit in reconfiguring racial privileges and exclusions, as opposed to opening up American democracy to all its people.
In 1870, the impact of Fifteenth Amendment was momentous. For the first time ever, Black men in the U.S. were rushing to the polls to exercise their right to fair political representation. After the Reconstruction Act of 1867, but especially after the ratification of the Fifteenth, state governments across the entire country became remarkably biracial. The first Black representatives joined the U.S. House, with sixteen members serving in Congress and two in the Senate between 1870 and 1881. After that short period, only 16 Black representatives would serve in the House, and none in the Senate until 1967.
But that’s not the whole story. A closer look at the Fifteenth Amendment reveals troubling effects that continue to this day. In many respects, the ongoing assault on the voting rights of Black communities is paradoxically rooted in the very laws that Union statesmen used to bring slavery to an end. The vines and branches of voter suppression grew up from the soil of emancipation itself.
The Fifteenth Amendment, as an emancipation-era constitutional innovation, was representative of a compromise between the representatives of the Union and the defeated Confederacy. All too easily, lawmakers of the period shifted attention away from the interests of the 4 million traumatized and still oppressed Black people who emerged out of slavery. Emancipation laws—the legal procedures that abolished the institution of slavery, setting enslaved people free from the hands of slave-owners—were never written by the enslaved, nor with their interests truly at heart.
As a result, the Reconstruction laws that should have been devoted to remedying the harm done to Black people served instead to appease the resentments of Southerners and the Northerners, alike. Indeed, we forget that up until the eve of the Civil War, white Northerners, in the vast majority of their three-thousand newspapers, did not outrightly support the end of slavery, and worried that the rapid emancipation of enslaved people would destabilize the prevailing social order. Meanwhile, emancipation laws and policies in the 1860s reconciled themselves with the thrashing spirit of slave-owner grievances. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 decreed freedom for all enslaved people, except for those held in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. In 1865, under President Johnson, nearly all lands that had already been distributed to Black people as reparations were re-confiscated and given back to the planter class. The effects were stark and swift: due to Johnson’s amnesty to the former slave-owners, by 1870, only a minuscule 0.7% of the Southern Blacks had ownership rights to land.
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment wrote antislavery into the constitution, while also including a loophole to legitimate the future enslavement of criminalized Black persons. Meanwhile, the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865 to “supervise” emancipated Black people across the South, quickly morphed into an agency of racial labor control serving the rising sharecropping regime. And the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, bestowed citizenship rights on Black men, but also disenfranchised male citizens because of criminal conviction. This section of the amendment would systematically disadvantage Black communities, disproportionately criminalized by the legal system from Reconstruction up until today.
When it comes to the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified by the Senate on February 3, 1870, the compromise with anti-Black resentment, but also with anti-Asian and anti-immigrant resentment is also clear. Beginning in 1868, Congressional lawmakers debated whether the amendment should set a uniform national standard to enfranchise all adult male citizens, or a “negative” one barring the use of race to suppress votes but leaving other limitations to the states. The limited “negative” version of the amendment won out. Here, the interests of the ex-slave-owners across the South dovetailed with anti-Asian sentiment of Congressmen from western states, and the anti-migrant sentiment of Congressmen from New England with respect to Irish Catholic migrants. In other words, a convergence of racisms—anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Irish—yielded the timid version of the amendment that was finally ratified.
The Fifteenth decreed that voting rights “shall not be denied” based on race or color discrimination, but did not ban any of the already well-honed weapons of voter suppression utilized by the states, including poll taxes and the exclusion of women from the franchise. The toolkit of restrictive voting, soon expanded to include literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and all-white primaries, would only be decisively outlawed by the Amendment guaranteeing the Women’s Right to Vote in 1920, and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. These striking omissions of the Fifteenth Amendment enabled the disenfranchisement of Asian Americans and some categories of European migrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most tragically of all, however, the “negative” version of the Fifteenth Amendment legitimated rampant voter terrorization and suppression campaigns against Black people during the Jim Crow era and beyond. Certainly, the Fifteenth was a beacon of democracy’s light because it codified that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged… on account of race.” On the other hand, the Amendment contained some darkness, too. Lawmakers chose not to codify prohibitions of voting restrictions based on family heritage, ethnicity, education, access to wealth, and gender. In the decades after 1870, these ostensibly nonracial restrictions were spun together in service of new de facto forms of race-based voter discrimination.
Courts interpreted the Fifteenth Amendment narrowly, using its inherent ambiguities to abet white supremacy. So, in 1873, two election inspectors in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to count the vote of William Garner, an African American citizen, because he had allegedly not paid a $1.50 poll tax. The Supreme Court, in United States v. Reese (1876), dismissed the indictments against the inspectors, and decided against the rights of the Black citizen. The Court interpreted the Fifteenth Amendment as bearing only on direct racial restrictions, but not its many covert or proxy forms. As a practical consequence, after 1876, state legislatures across the country, and not just in the South, were empowered to disenfranchise minority citizens, especially Black people, as long as restrictions were not explicitly “on account of race.” By the 1890s, during the Jim Crow era, states in the South (and the West, too) entrenched voter disenfranchisement in their constitutions and laws.
The legacy of the “weak” version of Fifteenth Amendment is clear to this day: it provided the leeway for state legislatures to suppress the vote as a matter of state rights. Today, state lawmakers are introducing new tactics to suppress the vote of historically excluded Americans, including African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx Americans, through cuts to early voting, voter purges, reduced polling hours, restrictive photo requirements, and harassment campaigns.
In the wake of the Civil War, the lawmakers who penned the Fifteenth Amendment reconciled themselves with the grievances of racial-caste elites. We are well into another period of such compromise and reconciliation today. But a compromise with white supremacy is also a concession to what Martin Luther King’s mentor, Howard Thurman, once called the “dead-weight advantages” of those with outsized and inequitable economic, social, and political power. Thurman said that such concession could only lead a condition “where there is no dream, life becomes a swamp… [and] the heart begins to rot.”
For Black people, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment provided the impetus for redoubled grassroots organizing and for the lifting of hearts. Black communities celebrated the Fifteenth, just as they had grandly celebrated the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments before it, and the Emancipation Proclamation before that. In 1870, Black voters across the U.S. also made it clear that they boldly intended to claim equitable representation for themselves, in order to give emancipation true meaning. Celebrations were organized across the country in Black Union Leagues and churches. But this was not a celebration of an end, but of a beginning. At one celebration held in San Francisco, Bishop Thomas Ward of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church said that the time had come to “tear down every relic of old barbarism, and hurl it into the pit from when it came.” Even though the letter of the Fifteenth Amendment was flawed, the meaning that Black communities found in it speaks to us today and quickens us for the ongoing struggle.
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