15th Amendment Grants Voting Rights to African American Men

But racial discrimination resulted in widespread disenfranchisement

15th Amendment
An illustration captures the excitement that followed the ratification of the 15th amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men.

MPI / Getty Images

The 15th Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, extended the right to vote to African American men seven years after the emancipation proclamation deemed the enslaved population free. Giving black men voting rights was yet another way for the federal government to recognize them as full American citizens.

The amendment stated:

“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.”

However, fierce racial discrimination that would last for several decades effectively prevented African American men from realizing their constitutional rights. It would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate the obstacles, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and retaliation from employers that disenfranchised African American men and women alike. However, the Voting Rights Act has faced challenges in recent years.

Key Takeaways: The 15th Amendment

  • In 1869, Congress passed the 15th amendment, which granted black men in the US the right to vote. The amendment was officially ratified into the Constitution the following year.
  • The right to vote enabled African Americans to elect hundreds of black lawmakers into office at the local, state, and national levels. Hiram Revels, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, stands out as the first black man to be seated in Congress.
  •  When Reconstruction ended, Republicans in the South lost their influence, and the lawmakers who remained effectively stripped African Americans of their right to vote.
  • It took nearly a century after the 15th amendment’s ratification for African Americans to be allowed to exercise their voting rights without fear of retaliation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally gave black men and women the right to vote. 

Black Men Use Voting Rights to Their Advantage

African Americans were staunch supporters of the slain President Abraham Lincoln, the Republican politician who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After his 1865 assassination, Lincoln’s popularity grew, and African Americans expressed their gratitude to him by becoming loyal supporters of the Republican Party. The 15th amendment allowed black men to use their votes to give Republicans an edge over rival political parties.

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass actively worked for black male suffrage and tried to make the case for it in his public remarks about the issue. He acknowledged that anti-black stereotypes had fostered the idea that African Americans were too ignorant to vote. 

“It is said that we are ignorant; admit it,” Douglass said. “But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote ....What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.”

A man named Thomas Mundy Peterson, from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, became the first African American to vote in an election after the 15th amendment was enacted. Newly given the right to vote, black men quickly influenced the American political scene, allowing Republicans to usher in sweeping change across the former Confederacy, part of the Union once more. These changes included getting black men, such as Hiram Rhodes Revels, elected in Southern states. Revels was a Republican from Natchez, Mississippi, and distinguished himself by becoming the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate. During the period after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, hundreds of blacks served as elected officials in state legislatures and in local governments.

Reconstruction Marks a Shift

When Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s, however, Southern lawmakers worked to render African Americans second-class citizens once more. They flouted both the 14th and 15th amendments, which recognized African Americans as U.S. citizens and granted them voting rights, respectively. This shift stemmed from Rutherford B. Hayes' 1876 presidential election, in which a disagreement over electoral votes led Republicans and Democrats to make a compromise that sacrificed black suffrage. Southern Democrats would support Hayes if Republicans removed their troops from the South and stopped enforcing black voting rights. 

To say this agreement had a detrimental effect on black male suffrage would be an understatement. Voter registration in Mississippi is a case in point. There, two-thirds of black men had been registered to vote, but by 1892, just 4% were. The 15th amendment was essentially dead.  

In the end, black men were technically “Americans,” but could not exercise their right to vote. Whites discouraged those who tried to by requiring payment of poll taxes or a passing score on a literacy test to vote. In addition, large numbers of African Americans in the South worked as sharecroppers and faced the threat of eviction from landlords who objected to black suffrage. In some cases, blacks were beaten, killed, or had their homes burned down for attempting to vote. Voting as an African American in the Jim Crow South too often meant putting one’s life and livelihood on the line.

A New Chapter for Black Suffrage

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Civil rights activists had worked diligently to secure voting rights for African Americans, and federal legislation eliminated the local and state policies that effectively blocked people of color from casting ballots. White civic leaders and polling officials could no longer use literacy tests and poll taxes to deter black people from voting, and the federal government granted the U.S. attorney general the power to conduct probes into the use of such methods during elections. 

Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, the federal government began to review the voter registration process in places where most of the minority population had not signed up to vote. But the Voting Rights Act didn’t reverse the challenges black voters faced overnight. Some jurisdictions simply ignored the federal legislation on voting rights. Still, activists and advocacy groups could now pursue legal action when the rights of black voters were violated or ignored. After the Voting Rights Act’s enactment, record numbers of black voters began to vote for the politicians, black or white, who they felt advocated for their interests. 

Black Voters Still Face Challenges

In the 21st century, voting rights remain an issue of pressing concern for voters of color. Voter suppression efforts continue to be a problem. Voter ID laws, long lines and poor conditions in voting precincts in minority communities, as well as the disenfranchisement of convicted felons have all undermined the efforts of people of color to vote. 

Stacey Abrams, a 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate, insists that voter suppression cost her the election. Abrams said in 2019 that voters face systematic barriers in states across the country during the election process. She started the organization Fair Fight Action to address voting rights in the U.S. today.

“This is about whether voters’ voices can be heard; it’s about whether citizens are allowed to be voters,” she said.