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Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Interpretation and history
This amendment guarantees the right of citizens of the United States to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of slavery. But it was not really until the Voting Rights Act in 1965, almost a century later, that this guarantee was actually achieved in all states.
The first person to vote under the provisions of the amendment was Thomas Mundy Peterson.
After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment barring slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing former slaves citizenship, there were still fears by the Radical Republicans that sympathizers to the Confederate cause would attempt to achieve through suppression of the black vote what they could not obtain by war. No southern state had ever had a black elected official, and most southern states even prohibited the vote to freed slaves and free-born blacks. Blacks were known to be sympathetic to the Republicans thanks to their clear anti-slavery policies, and the efforts of the Republicans with Reconstruction after the Civil War. As the fear that southern legislatures would restrict the vote to whites as they did before the Civil War, the amendment was clearly justified and, in retrospect, the fears of the Radicals were well founded. They also saw a political opportunity to break the hold of the Democratic Party over the deep south.
After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, southern blacks voted in numbers that on a per capita basis would probably exceed black political participation today. On both a per capita and absolute basis, more blacks were elected to political office during the period from 1865 to 1880 than at any other time in American history. Although no state elected a black governor during Reconstruction, a number of state legislatures were effectively under the control of a substantial African-American caucus. These legislatures brought in programs that are considered part of government's duty now, but at the time were radical, such as universal public education. They also set aside all racially biased laws, even those prohibiting interracial marriage.
Despite the efforts of groups like the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate black voters and white Republicans, assurance of federal support for democratically elected southern governments meant that most Republican voters could both vote and rule in confidence. For example, when an all-white mob attempted to take over the interracial government of New Orleans, President Ulysses S. Grant sent in federal troops to restore the elected mayor.
However, after the close election of Rutherford B. Hayes, in order to mollify the South, Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops. Hayes also overlooked poll violence in the deep south, despite several attempts by the Republicans to pass laws assuring the rights of black voters and to punish intimidation. To show the unwillingness of Congress to take any action at this time, even a bill that would only have required incidents of violence at polling places to be publicized failed to be passed. Without the restrictions, voting place violence against blacks and Republicans increased, with even murder not being unknown. Most of this was done without any interference by law enforcement, and often even with their co-operation.
By the 1890's many southern states had rigorous voter qualification laws, including literacy tests , poll taxes, and even making it difficult to find a place to register to vote. Most of these laws were race neutral , but clearly discriminated against black voters, either through their construction or their administration. For example, most states required literacy tests, but you were exempt if you could prove that one of your grandfathers had voted (the original "grandfather clause"). The literacy test was set to be almost impossible to pass. In one case, a potential black registrant was asked to reproduce the entire U.S. Constitution from memory. Despite being a university professor, he failed to pass the test.
Unfortunately, this situation lasted well into the 1950s. At that time, the NAACP started challenging voter registration laws in court on the basis that they were unfairly administered against black voters. Despite numerous court rulings in their favor, the threat of violence or simple ignorance of their rights kept black voter participation low.
The matter came to a head shortly after Lyndon B. Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson had a very liberal reputation, and a long history of sympathy for black voting rights. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, his commitment was put to the test. The Democratic Party of the State of Mississippi was "whites only" - a trick they pulled off because legally the Democratic party was a private organization, not a government agency, and therefore was not required to obey the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. As such, even registered black voters in Mississippi couldn't vote in the Democratic primaries, which for all intents and purposes decided who won the general election (In several southern states, Republicans didn't even challenge for many offices, including for election to the House of Representatives). As a result, black voters formed the Mississippi Black Democratic Party, and elected its own delegates who showed up at a convention that was clearly going to be won by Johnson, demanding their proportion of Mississippi's delegates. After a hearing before the accreditation committee, the black delegates were allowed to sit as delegates-at-large, effectively breaking the color barrier in the Democratic Party.
In addition to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Johnson was also instrumental in the passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which prohibited poll taxes.
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