The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on February 3, and then adopted on March 30, in 1870. It prohibits federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It was last of the three Reconstruction Amendments.
The previous two amendments abolished slavery and provided citizenship and equal protection under the law. During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, it was the Republican Party – the more radical party at that time – that saw the Black vote as key to the party’s future (Abraham Lincoln was a Republican).
Passage of the amendment did not, however, guarantee the right to vote in practice. The Supreme Court remained a fortress of white privilege, enabling state governments to erect such obstacles as literacy tests and poll taxes to exclude most Black voters, while exempting white voters by grandfather clauses. The rule of Jim Crow, often enforced by violence and Ku Klux Klan intimidation, effectively disenfranchised people of color.
Not until Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, under mass pressure from civil rights activists and the eventual acquiescence of President Lyndon B. Johnson to public demand, did the U.S. provide federal oversight of elections in discriminatory jurisdictions, banned literacy tests and other tricks, and created legal remedies for people affected by voting discrimination.
In the notorious Shelby County v. Holder case decided in 2013 by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was no longer constitutional. That section said that certain jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression required federal approval of any changes to the voting laws, so as to guarantee that they would not revert to Jim Crow practices. The Supreme Court justified casting aside these protections because voting seemed to going just fine since 1965 so we didn’t need them any more.
Almost immediately, of course, Republican-governed states throughout the South started passing new voter restriction laws affecting polling booth hours, advance voting, voter registration, and removing voters whose names bore some similarity to voters in other states. Congress must pass a new voting rights law to guarantee to every American the right to vote!
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