On February 3, 2020, the Fifteenth Amendment celebrates its 150th anniversary. In the run-up to this sesquicentennial, I’ll be posting this week about the Fifteenth Amendment’s history and contemporary place in our constitutional system.
The final act in the trilogy of Reconstruction Amendments, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the “deni[al] or abridge[ment]” of the “right … to vote” “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and empowers Congress to “enforce” its provisions by “appropriate legislation.” The Fifteenth Amendment was a tectonic shift in political power and race relations. In less than a decade, the United States transformed itself from a slaveholding nation to a multi-racial democracy.
For much of its 150-year history, however, the Fifteenth Amendment was a parchment promise. Throughout the Jim Crow South, racist officials employed literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes to disenfranchise black voters. Violence and intimidation also deterred blacks from going to the polls. It would take the sacrifices of the civil rights movement and the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment a reality in the modern era.
Perhaps because of this tragic history, the conventional narrative of Reconstruction treats the Fifteenth Amendment as an afterthought. Compared to the attention given to the other Reconstruction Amendments, the Fifteenth Amendment has been largely overlooked.
Read more at Election Law Blog