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Fifteenth Amendment

Last Updated: 2006

Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment in February 1869, and the required number of states ratified the amendment by March 1870. The amendment prohibited discrimination of voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” While it extended voting rights to African Americans across the nation, it faced a long road to actually being practiced by many states and localities.

The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 extended voting rights to black Americans in former Confederate states only. Three factors motivated Republicans to extend voting rights nationwide. First, many Republicans felt a moral obligation to avoid hypocrisy. Second, Republicans feared a counterattack by whites toward the now-freed slaves and believed that voting rights would enable black Americans to act with political force. Finally, some Republicans believed that giving African Americans the right to vote would give their party a political advantage by creating a broader electorate.

1. 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.
2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Congress debated three versions of the amendment. The first prohibited voting discrimination based on race. A second version explicitly prohibited the use of literacy tests, poll taxes, and conditions of birth to discriminate against voters. Finally, the third version simply extended suffrage universally to all men over the age of 21. After much debate, the first version was accepted by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, though some Republicans felt that this version left many avenues open for discrimination.

The amendment faced wide opposition from whites across the United States, especially from former Confederate states. As some Republicans expected, those opposed to the amendment devised strategies that limited or eliminated black suffrage. Those strategies included extralegal means (e.g., physical violence and verbal threats) and “legal” means (e.g., poll taxes and literacy requirements).

The Supreme Court upheld many of the legal means for circumventing the language of the Fifteenth Amendment. In Williams v. Mississippi (1898), the Court decided that literacy tests, required by Mississippi’s constitution, did not discriminate on account of race. This decision opened the way for other states in the former Confederacy to rewrite their constitutions in an effort to limit black voting. As a result, state governments disenfranchised thousands of black Americans using the Court’s decision as justification.

The spirit of the Fifteenth Amendment would not be realized until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act gave the federal government the power to oversee voter registration and made literacy tests illegal. The act significantly helped to increase both voting by African Americans and the number of African American representatives in Congress.

SEE ALSO: Civil WarFourteenth AmendmentReconstructionSlaveryVoting Rights Act of 1965