When Did African Americans Get the Right to Vote?

In the aftermath of the civil war, the United States found itself in unknown territory. With the defeat of Confederation, some 4 million black men, women and children enslaved obtained their freedom, an emancipation which will be formalized by the adoption of the 13th amendment to the Constitution.

For black Americans, obtaining all the rights of citizenship – and in particular the right to vote – was essential to guarantee true freedom and self-determination. “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has obtained the ballot,” said Frederick Douglass in May 1865, a month after the Union’s victory at Appomattox.

Presidential reconstruction and black codes

An 1867 political cartoon depicting an African-American man voting in the Georgetown elections while Andrew Johnson and others watch with anger.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, the task of rebuilding the Union fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. A Unionist born in Tennessee, Johnson believed strongly in state rights and was very lenient with white southerners in his reconstruction policy. He asked the old Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment and pledge loyalty to the Union, but otherwise gave them complete freedom to restore their post-war governments.

As a result, in 1865-1866 most of the legislatures of the southern states passed restrictive laws called black codes, which strictly regulated the behavior of black citizens and denied them suffrage and other rights.

Radical Republicans in Congress were outraged, arguing that black codes had gone a long way toward re-establishing slavery in everything but the name. In early 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which sought to build on the 13th Amendment and give black Americans the rights of citizens. When Johnson vetoed the bill, based on opposition to federal action on behalf of ex-slaves, Congress canceled its veto, marking the first time in the history of the country that major legislation became law on a presidential veto.

The 14th and 15th amendments

With the adoption of a new reconstruction law (again on Johnson’s veto) in March 1867, the era of radical or congressional reconstruction began. Over the next decade, black Americans voted in large numbers in the South, electing a total of 22 black men to sit in the United States Congress (two in the Senate) and helping to elect Johnson’s republican successor, Ulysses S. Grant, in 1868.

The 14th Amendment, approved by Congress in 1866 and ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all “born or naturalized in the United States”, including former slaves, and guaranteed “equal protection of the law” to all citizens. In 1870, Congress passed the last of three so-called reconstruction amendments, the 15th amendment, which stated that voting rights could not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any state because of race.” , color or previous conditions. bondage. “

Reconstruction saw biracial democracy in the South for the first time, even though much of the power of state governments remained white-handed. Like black voters, black officials faced the constant threat of intimidation and violence, often at the hands of Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups.

READ MORE: How the 1876 election effectively ended reconstruction

Reconstruction in the era of civil rights

While the 15th Amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of race based voting rights, it left the door open for states to determine specific qualifications for suffrage. Southern state legislatures have used these qualifications – including literacy tests, voting taxes and other discriminatory practices – to deprive a majority of black voters in the decades since the reconstruction.

As a result, the legislatures of white dominated states have consolidated control and effectively restored black codes in the form of Jim Crow’s laws, a system of segregation that would remain in place for almost a century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, securing the voting rights of African Americans in the South became a central objective of the civil rights movement. Although the radical Civil Rights Act of 1964 ultimately prohibited segregation in schools and other public places, it did not address the problem of discrimination in voting rights.

Brutal attacks by state and local law enforcement on hundreds of peaceful protesters led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, drew unprecedented attention to the voting movement. Later that year, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits literacy tests and other methods used to deprive black voters of their rights. In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that voting fees (which the 24th amendment eliminated for the 1964 federal election) were also unconstitutional for local and local elections.

Ongoing challenges to black voting rights

President Lyndon B. Johnson celebrates with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Clarence Mitchell after signing the Voting Rights Bill on August 6, 1965.

Before the law on voting rights was adopted, around 23% of eligible black voters were registered across the country; in 1969, that number rose to 61%. In 1980, the percentage of the black adult population on the electoral lists of the South exceeded that of the rest of the country, wrote the historian James C. Cobb in 2015, adding that in the middle of the Eighties, there were more Blacks in public service in the South than in the rest of the country combined.

In 2012, voter turnout for black voters surpassed that of white voters for the first time in history, when 66.6% of eligible black voters turned out to re-elect Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president. .

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, ruling 5-4 in Shelby v. Holder, that it was unconstitutional to require states with a history of electoral discrimination to seek federal government approval before changing their electoral laws. Following the Court’s decision, a number of states have adopted new voting restrictions, including limiting early voting and requiring voters to present photo ID. Supporters contend that these measures are designed to prevent electoral fraud, while critics argue that they – like voting taxes and literacy tests before them – disproportionately affect poor, older, black and Latino voters .

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