BIn April 1870, 152 years ago this month, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish certified the 15th Amendment. After nearly a century of American experience with democracy, it finally gave African-American men the right to vote. First passed by Congress in February, the amendment was still subject 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 “long emancipation”), but were ultimately forced to ratify it . Meanwhile, black women’s suffrage would take nearly another century to arrive.
Many white abolitionists of the time believed that ratification meant the battle against slavery was won. White-led abolitionist societies, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s irrepressible Anti-Slavery Society, began closing their offices and downsizing their newspapers after its passage. President Ulysses Grant said the Fifteenth Amendment was “complete[d] the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event which has occurred since the birth of the nation. In fact, as we know, to counter black voters, the Jim Crow era soon began, marked by the hardening of 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, which had to wait to be honored until the civil rights victories of the 1960s.
Yet today, more than 550 bills have been introduced through 2022 to restrict voting access in at least 40 states, and the Senate’s recent failure to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Advancement Act to defend against this aggression, emphasizes the urgency of the Fifteenth Amendment. unfinished legacy of the struggle for multiracial democracy. The growing wave of attacks on suffrage in America also suggests something more troubling: the very amendments that ended slavery, like the Fifteenth, were actually complicit in reconfiguring racial privilege and exclusions. , as opposed to the opening of American democracy to all its people.
In 1870, the impact of the Fifteenth Amendment was considerable. For the first time, black men in the United States rushed 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 country became remarkably biracial. The first black representatives joined the United States House, with sixteen members serving in Congress and two in the Senate between 1870 and 1881. After this short time, 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 examination of the Fifteenth Amendment reveals disturbing effects that endure to this day. In many ways, the ongoing attack on black community suffrage is paradoxically rooted in the very laws that Union statesmen used to end slavery. The vines and branches of voter suppression grew from the soil of emancipation itself.
The Fifteenth Amendment, as a constitutional innovation of the Emancipation era, was representative of a compromise between Union representatives and the defeated Confederacy. Too easily, lawmakers at the time diverted attention from the interests of the 4 million traumatized and still oppressed black people who emerged from slavery. The emancipation laws – the legal procedures that abolished the institution of slavery, freeing slaves from the hands of slaveholders – were never written by slaves, nor with their interests truly at heart.
As a result, the Reconstruction Acts that should have been dedicated to redressing wrongs done to black people instead served to assuage the resentments of Southerners and Northerners alike. Indeed, we forget that until the eve of the Civil War, northern whites, in the vast majority of their three thousand newspapers, did not support categorically the end of slavery and feared that the rapid emancipation of slaves does not destabilize the dominant system. the social order. Meanwhile, the emancipation laws and policies of the 1860s came to terms with the brutal spirit of the grievances of the slave owners. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared freedom for all slaves except those held in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. In 1865, under President Johnson, almost all the land that had previously been distributed to blacks as reparations was reconfiscated and returned to the planter class. The effects were stark and swift: because of Johnson’s amnesty to former slaveholders, in 1870 only a tiny 0.7 percent of Southern blacks had property rights to land.
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment enshrined anti-slavery in the constitution, while including a loophole to legitimize the future enslavement of criminalized black people. Meanwhile, the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865 to “supervise” emancipated blacks in the South, quickly evolved into a racial labor control agency serving the burgeoning sharecropping regime. And the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship rights to black men, but also disenfranchised male citizens due to criminal conviction. This section of the amendment would systematically disadvantage black communities, disproportionately criminalized by the legal system from Reconstruction until today.
Regarding 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 establish a uniform national standard to enfranchise all adult male citizens, or a “negative” standard prohibiting the use of race for removing votes but leaving other limitations to states. The limited “negative” version of the amendment won. Here, the interests of former slaveholders from the South dovetailed with the anti-Asian sentiment of congressmen from western states and the anti-migrant sentiment of congressmen from New England toward migrants. Irish Catholics. In other words, a convergence of racisms – anti-Black, anti-Asian and anti-Irish – resulted in the half-hearted version of the amendment that was eventually ratified.
The Fifteenth decreed that the franchise ‘shall not be denied’ on the basis of racial or color discrimination, but did not ban any of the already well-tried weapons of voter suppression used by states, including taxes. elections and the exclusion of women from the right to vote. . The restrictive voting toolkit, soon expanded to include literacy tests, grandfather clauses and all-white primaries, would only be permanently banned by the 1920 Women’s Suffrage Amendment and laws on civil rights of the 1960s. These striking omissions from the Fifteenth Amendment enabled the disenfranchisement of Asian Americans and certain categories of European migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most tragic of all, however, the “negative” version of the Fifteenth Amendment legitimized widespread campaigns of terrorism and voter suppression against black people during the Jim Crow era and beyond. Certainly, the Fifteenth was a beacon of the light of democracy because it codified that “the right to vote of the citizens of the United States shall not be denied or restricted…on account of race.” On the other hand, the Amendment also contained some darkness. Lawmakers chose not to codify prohibitions on voting restrictions based on family heritage, ethnicity, education, access to wealth and gender. In the decades after 1870, these seemingly non-racial restrictions were lumped together in the service of new de facto forms of race-based electoral discrimination.
Courts have interpreted the Fifteenth Amendment narrowly, using its inherent ambiguities to encourage 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 vs. Reese (1876), dismissed the indictments against the inspectors and decided against the rights of the black citizen. The Court interpreted the Fifteenth Amendment as addressing only 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 blacks, so long as the restrictions were not explicitly “based on the race “. In the 1890s, during the Jim Crow era, southern (and western, too) states enshrined disenfranchisement of voters in their constitutions and laws.
The legacy of the “weak” version of the Fifteenth Amendment is clear to this day: it gave state legislatures the ability to suppress voting as a matter of state rights. Today, state lawmakers are introducing new tactics to suppress voting for historically excluded Americans, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinx Americans, through early voting cuts, purges voters, reduced voting hours, restrictive photo requirements and harassment campaigns.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the legislators who drafted the Fifteenth Amendment came to terms with the grievances of racial elites. Today we have entered another period of compromise and reconciliation. But a compromise with white supremacy is also a concession to what Martin Luther King’s mentor, Howard Thurman, once called the “windfall advantages” of those with disproportionate and inequitable economic, social and political power. Thurman said such a concession could only lead to a condition “where there is no dream, life becomes a swamp… [and] the heart begins to rot.
For blacks, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment gave the impetus to redoubled popular organization and the uplifting of hearts. The Negro communities celebrated the Fifteenth, just as they had celebrated with grandeur the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments before it, and the Emancipation Proclamation before that. In 1870, black voters across the United States also made it clear that they had the audacity to demand fair representation for themselves, in order to give real meaning to emancipation. Celebrations were held across the country in black labor leagues and churches. But it was not the celebration of an end, but of a beginning. At a celebration held in San Francisco, Bishop Thomas Ward of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said the time had come to “destroy any relic of ancient barbarism and throw it into the pit as soon as it comes in.” . Even if the letter of the Fifteenth Amendment was flawed, the meaning that black communities found in it speaks to us today and empowers us for the ongoing struggle.
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