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On this day in history: Ratification of the 15th Amendment

Image of a parade celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment, (1870) Library of Congress

by Bill Ross

On February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States became law when Iowa was the 28th state to ratify it. It was the third and final of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution. The amendment was passed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race and, in combination with the Fourteenth Amendment, was intended to ensure the civil rights of former slaves. The text of Section 1 reads: “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.”

Voter Registration, Macon, Ga. (1867) The New York Public Library.

Following the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South, state and local officials in the region began implementing restrictions to make it hard for Blacks to vote. Literacy tests, polls taxes, and grandfather clauses skirted the language of the 15th Amendment; however, such provisions weighed most heavily on African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a direct challenge to race-based restriction on voting, among other things. These efforts culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), both signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“Johnson signs Voting Rights Act.” (1965) Digital Public Library of America

These voting protections remained in effect until Shelby County vs. Holder (2013), in which the Supreme Court removed oversight of voting rights by the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. District Court for D.C. This lack of enforcement has allowed the voting roll purges, gerrymandering, and politicization of elections that have become commonplace in recent years.

As we celebrate the ratification of the 15th Amendment, let us renew our commitment to its central purpose by both supporting ongoing efforts to strengthen voting rights legislation and opposing partisan gerrymandering.

About the author

Bill Ross is a professor emeritus, UNH Library. He is a husband, father and grandfather. He is a NC native, who proudly calls Dover, NH his home.

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