Voter Suppression Grew Up From the Soil of Emancipation

By April of 1870—152 years ago this month—Secretary of State Hamilton Fish had certified the 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment finally allowed African American men to vote, after almost 100 years of American democracy. The Amendment was first passed in February by Congress. However, it still had to be ratified by many states over a 2-month period. Seven states rejected the amendment (a mix of former Border states, Southern states, Western States, and New Jersey, with its notoriously “long emancipation”), but were ultimately forced to ratify it. Voting rights for Black women would not be granted until almost 100 years later.

Many of those who believed in ratification were white abolitionists at the time. White-led abolitionist societies, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s irrepressible Anti-Slavery Society, began to shutter their offices and wind down their newspapers after its passage. President Ulysses Grant declared that the Fifteenth Amendment had “complete[d] the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.” In actual fact, as we know, to counteract Black voters the Jim Crow era soon dawned, marked by the hardening of the America’s racial caste system through discriminatory laws, intimidation, and white supremacist terror. Many people view the Fifteenth Amendment merely as a promissory letter on racial equity. This was only honored after Civil Rights victory in the 1960s.

Yet today there are more than 550 bills introduced through 2022 to restrict voting access across at least 40 states, and the Senate’s recent failure to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Advancement Act to defend against this assault, point to the urgency of the Fifteenth Amendment’s unfinished legacy of struggle for multi-racial democracy. A troubling sign is the rising tide of attacks against voting rights in America: The very Amendments that abolished slavery like the Fifteenth were complicit in reconfiguring race privileges and exclusions in order to open up American democracy for all.

Fifteenth Amendment had a profound impact on 1870. Black Americans rushed to the polls for the first time in history to assert their rights to equal political representation. Reconstruction Act of1867 was followed by the ratification of Fifteenth. This markedly changed the makeup of all state governments in the nation. First Black members joined the U.S. House of Representatives, which had 16 members who served in Congress between 1870-1881 and two senators. After this short time, 16 Black Representatives would be in the House and one in Senate, but none of them until 1967.

But that’s not the whole story. The troubling consequences of the Fifteenth Amendment are still evident today. Paradoxically, many of the current attacks on Black voters’ rights are rooted in laws made by Union statesmen to abolish slavery. Voter suppression was the root of all that grew from the soil itself.

As an example of compromise between representatives of both the Union and defeated Confederacy, the Fifteenth Amendment was an innovation in constitutional law during the emancipation era. The 4 million Blacks who were freed from slavery and their rights, suffered terribly by the lawmakers. Emancipation laws—the legal procedures that abolished the institution of slavery, setting enslaved people free from the hands of slave-owners—were never written by the enslaved, nor with their interests truly at heart.

Reconstruction laws which were supposed to be used to correct the damage done to Black people instead served to placate the resentments both of the Southerners as well as the Northerners. We forget to mention that white Northerners up until the Civil War did not support abolishing slavery and feared that the rapid emancipation would cause chaos in society. In the meantime, the policies and laws governing emancipation in the 1860s were able to work with the grumbling spirit of the slave-owners. The Emancipation Proclamation of1863, for example, declared freedom to all enslaved persons, with the exception of those who were held in border states of Missouri Kentucky Maryland and Delaware. Nearly all of the lands which had been given to Blacks as reparations in 1865 were returned to the planter classes and re-confiscated. The effects were stark and swift: due to Johnson’s amnesty to the former slave-owners, by 1870, only a minuscule 0.7% of the Southern Blacks had ownership rights to land.

The Thirteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1865, included antislavery as a clause. It also provided a loophole that allowed for future enslavement to criminalized Black people. Meanwhile, the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865 to “supervise” emancipated Black people across the South, quickly morphed into an agency of racial labor control serving the rising sharecropping regime. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified by the Senate in 1868. It granted citizenship rights to Black men but disenfranchised black citizens if they were convicted of a crime. The amendment’s second section would disadvantage Black communities. They have been disproportionately punished by the law from Reconstruction to today.

Clear is the Fifteenth Amendment. The Senate ratified it on February 3, 1870. Beginning in 1868, Congressional lawmakers debated whether the amendment should set a uniform national standard to enfranchise all adult male citizens, or a “negative” one barring the use of race to suppress votes but leaving other limitations to the states. The limited “negative” version of the amendment won out. The interests of ex-slave owners in the South were influenced by the anti-Asian sentiments of Congressmen representing western states and the antimigrant sentiment of Congressmen of New England regarding Irish Catholic migrants. In other words, a convergence of racisms—anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Irish—yielded the timid version of the amendment that was finally ratified.

The Fifteenth decreed that voting rights “shall not be denied” based on race or color discrimination, but did not ban any of the already well-honed weapons of voter suppression utilized by the states, including poll taxes and the exclusion of women from the franchise. The toolkit of restrictive voting, soon expanded to include literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and all-white primaries, would only be decisively outlawed by the Amendment guaranteeing the Women’s Right to Vote in 1920, and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. This striking oversight of the Fifteenth Amendment led to the exclusion of Asian Americans, and certain categories of European migrants, in the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most tragically of all, however, the “negative” version of the Fifteenth Amendment legitimated rampant voter terrorization and suppression campaigns against Black people during the Jim Crow era and beyond. Certainly, the Fifteenth was a beacon of democracy’s light because it codified that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged… on account of race.” On the other hand, the Amendment contained some darkness, too. It was not decided by lawmakers to include voting prohibitions based upon family heritage or gender. These non-racial restrictions became a part of new de facto forms in the decades following 1870. race-based voter discrimination.

The Fifteenth Amendment was narrowly interpreted by courts, who used its inherent ambiguities as a way to encourage white supremacy. Two Lexington election inspectors, Kentucky in 1873 refused to count William Garner’s votes because Garner had not paid the $1.50 poll tax. In the Supreme Court United States v. Reese(1876) dismissed the indictments of the inspectors and declared against Black citizen rights. Court of Appeals interpreted Fifteenth Amendment to be only pertaining to direct racial restrictions and not the many proxy or covert 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 Black people, as long as restrictions were not explicitly “on account of race.” By the 1890s, during the Jim Crow era, states in the South (and the West, too) entrenched voter disenfranchisement in their constitutions and laws.

The legacy of the “weak” version of Fifteenth Amendment is clear to this day: it provided the leeway for state legislatures to suppress the vote as a matter of state rights. Today state legislators are considering new ways to suppress votes of Americans historically excluded, like African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinx Americans. These include cutting early voting hours and voter purges. They also plan to reduce polling hours and impose photo restrictions.

The Fifteenth Amendment was drafted by the Fifteenth Amendment’s authors in the aftermath of the Civil War. They were able to reconcile themselves with the grievances racial-caste leaders. Today we are in a new 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 “dead-weight advantages” of those with outsized and inequitable economic, social, and political power. Thurman said that such concession could only lead a condition “where there is no dream, life becomes a swamp… [and] the heart begins to rot.”

The Fifteenth Amendment’s ratification was a catalyst for Black people to redouble their grassroots organizing efforts and lift hearts. Black communities celebrated Fifteenth Amendment just like they did the Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendments and Emancipation Proclamation. Black voters in the United States made clear, 1870, that they wanted to be granted equitable representation to ensure that emancipation had its true meaning. In churches across America, celebrations were held in Black Union Leagues. However, this celebration was not about the end but the beginning. At one celebration held in San Francisco, Bishop Thomas Ward of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church said that the time had come to “tear down every relic of old barbarism, and hurl it into the pit from when it came.” Even though the letter of the Fifteenth Amendment was flawed, the meaning that Black communities found in it speaks to us today and quickens us for the ongoing struggle.

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