Every two to four years on a Tuesday in November, you can use a ballot box to cast a vote for the candidate of your choosing.
This simple act is something we often take for granted, but 150 years ago, many Americans didn’t have this privilege. It wasn’t until 1870, when the 15th Amendment became a part of the Constitution, that black men were granted the right to vote.
The amendment laid the groundwork for equal voting rights for all men and women in our country. However, the right to vote is something we still must fight to protect, even half a century later.
What the 15th Amendment Is and Its Importance for Voting Rights
Congress passed the 15th Amendment in February 1869 and the law was ratified the following year, on February 3, 1870. It states that 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 law was critical during the post-Civil War era after the end of slavery. Before this period, African Americans struggled to attain full rights. The 14th Amendment, which was enacted in 1868, granted African Americans citizenship, but it wasn’t until two years later that black men were able to vote. Even after the 15th Amendment was adopted, many states created barriers that prevented them from exercising their right to vote. These barriers included literacy tests, poll taxes, and violent threats to prevent black men from going to the polls. These obstacles contributed to low voter registration among African Americans. During this period, only 23% of voting-age African-Americans were registered.
It’s also important to note that although the 15th Amendment prohibited voting discrimination on the basis of race, the law did not give women the right to vote. It wasn’t until Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920 that all women could vote, and it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that literacy tests and other anti-voting efforts were outlawed and African Americans were granted full voting rights. Thanks to these efforts, the number of voting-age African Americans who were registered increased from 23% to 61% by 1969.
The Evolution of Voting Rights in America
Voting is important because it exemplifies what it means to be a citizen and have full rights in your own country. This right means that everyone in our nation—regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation—can fully participate in our democracy. Your vote is essentially your voice.
Voting has paved the way for more diverse representation in America’s elected offices, with more women and people of color serving in public office. However, 150 years after the adoption of the 15th Amendment, voting rights have never been more critical. It’s why the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has made African Americans and the Vote its 2020 Black History theme.
Today, some states have made it easier to register to vote and participate in elections, while others either have imposed or sought to enact new laws that making voting more onerous, including voter ID laws, reducing the number of polling locations, and purging eligible voters from voter registration lists.
The right to vote should be sacrosanct. This belief is at the heart of the 15th Amendment and crucial when it comes to preserving America’s democracy. Without the 15th Amendment, millions of Americans wouldn’t be able to vote or participate in our democracy, and we would likely not have leaders from nearly every walk of life serving in Congress today.
The 15th Amendment undoubtedly has helped America’s democracy endure and come closer to achieving the ultimate goal of our founders: liberty and justice for all.
Join us for good in registering to vote and exercising your right to create change and make your voice heard.