The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona law last week that would have criminalized the delivery of other people’s early ballots. In its decision, the 11-judge panel mentioned the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution 19 times, reaching back 150 years to halt what’s perceived as modern-day voter suppression.
The lasting power of the 15th Amendment, which awarded African Americans the right to vote, resonates today in courtrooms across America. But Civil War scholars and voting rights advocates warn that the amendment should serve as a cautionary tale: Challenges to voting rights today, from photo ID requirements to registration restrictions in some states, echo those that have plagued the 15th Amendment for more than a century.
On Monday, America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, that won women the right to vote, and the 55th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which cemented voting rights for Black citizens – all in a presidential election year.
“It’s a remarkable accomplishment given that slavery was such a dominant institution before the Civil War,” Columbia University history professor and author Eric Foner said of the 15th Amendment. “But the history of the 15th Amendment also shows rights can never be taken for granted: Things can be achieved and things can be taken away.”
The 15th Amendment was the last of three Constitutional amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment granted African Americans citizenship and equal treatment under the law.
Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party knew they needed to enshrine voting rights in law and, after much debate in Congress, drafted the 15th Amendment, declaring 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.”
Its passage touched off widespread celebrations. According to Foner’s book, “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” African Americans called the amendment the nation’s “second birth” and a “greater revolution than that of 1776.” Seven thousand Blacks squeezed down Broadway in New York City for a celebratory march and in Baltimore, some 10,000 people took part in a massive parade of Black army regiments, militia companies, trade unions and other groups, according to the book.
African Americans – many of them newly freed slaves – put their newfound freedom to use, voting in scores of Black candidates. During Reconstruction, 16 Black men served in Congress and 2,000 Black men served in elected local, state and federal positions, Foner said.
“There was tremendous optimism and hope and there was voting,” said historian Yohuru Williams of St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. “Clearly, the amendment has impact. But it’s short-lived.”
The amendment’s main flaw was that it didn’t guarantee citizens the right to vote – it only said that states couldn’t bar voting on the basis of race or color, Williams said. Starting around 1900, states found workarounds to the law, enacting poll tax laws and literacy tests as means of restricting the Black vote. Also, intimidation and violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan greatly diminished Black voting. From 1901 to 1928, no Black members served in Congress.
Women’s rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony also attacked the measure, complaining that the 15th Amendment didn’t include women’s rights. It wouldn’t be until 1920 and the 19th Amendment that those rights would be ratified.
It would take the blood and effort of the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and ’60s to affix voting rights for Blacks via the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Williams said. That act more definitively prohibited racial discrimination in voting and gave teeth to the 15th Amendment.
“The fatal defect of the 15th Amendment was enforcement,” he said. “You needed a second Civil War Reconstruction – the Civil Rights Era – to make those amendments real.”
The lack of a national voting right continues plaguing Americans today, said Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor and author of “The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present.”
Recent voting initiatives, such as stricter photo ID requirements, poll closures and early voting cutbacks have disproportionately impacted minority communities, Lichtman said. Backers of the laws say they’re created to prevent voter fraud and other irregularities.
Since 2010, 24 states have put in place new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.
“The debates over the 15th Amendment are incredibly relevant today in the new wave of these restrictive measures,” Lichtman said. “We need a constitutional right to vote. We need to join virtually every other democracy and do that.”
Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said she’s continually fighting against intrusion into the 15th Amendment and 1965 Voting Rights Act in Texas, from voter purge lists to racial gerrymandering to voter intimidation at the polls. The voter suppression initiatives she encounters are usually aimed at minority communities, she said.
“I consider it an aspirational law,” Lozano said of the 15th Amendment. “People need to be aware there’s a difference between passage and implementation. There’s a question about how these policies are implemented and are they doing what they’re intended to do?”
Jill Savitt, president and chief executive of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, said the 15th Amendment’s significance is “enormous,” given all the blood that was shed to adopt that amendment. But it should be remembered in the context of all the recent challenges to voting rights.
“The spirit of the 15th Amendment, on its 150th anniversary, is choking,” she said. “It’s not being lived up to in law or in spirit.”
The 15th Amendment’s legacy is one of remarkable accomplishment, Foner said. Just five years after the end of slavery, America allowed former slaves to participate in its democracy – a singular feat among countries that abolished slavery, he said.
But voting rights have been assailed ever since, Foner said.
“It’s a very checkered history,” he said. “American history is not just greater and greater freedom for everyone. Sometimes, it goes backward.”
Jervis is the Austin-based national correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @MrRJervis.