The 15th Amendment, granting African-American men the right to vote, was formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution on March 30, 1870 after the House of Representatives passed the 15th Amendment on February 25, 1869, by a vote of 144 to 44, and the Senate passed the 15th Amendment on February 26, 1869, by a vote of 39 to 13. Passed by Congress the year before, the amendment 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.”
President Ulysses S. Grant called the amendment “the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life,” Grant urged whites not to interfere with the enforcement of the new provision, and reminded African Americans of their responsibilities as voters. News of the Fifteenth Amendment’s passage was greeted with jubilation in the African American communities. There were major parades in New York and Baltimore to mark the occasion, as well as commemorative events in subsequent years to mark the anniversary. The expansion of the franchise also had the immediate effect of increasing the number of African American men serving in public office. It is estimated that between the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the end of Congressional Reconstruction in 1877, about two thousand African Americans served in local and state government offices, including state legislatures, and as members of Congress.
These gains, however, proved difficult to maintain, especially in the face of increasing white hostility to progress made by African Americans. By late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries, as northern Republicans grew weary of interceding in the political and racial conflicts in the South, southern whites successful engineered, through the law and through force, a return to “home rule.” Legislatures throughout the South instituted provisions like literacy tests, poll taxes, and “grandfather clauses” in their constitutions, effectively limiting the eligibility of African American men, and scores of white men, to vote and hold elected office. What was not accomplished through the law was accomplished through threats, intimidation, and violence, mainly at the hands of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Not until the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s—a period sometime referred to as American’s Second Reconstruction—were most African Americans able to regain this lost political ground. The ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964 outlawing the poll tax in federal elections, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (not to mention the earlier passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 also giving black women the right to vote) were meaningful steps in restoring to America’s black citizens the protections necessary to secure their right to vote, and to participate effectively in America’s democratic process.
Despite the amendment, by the late 1870s, various discriminatory practices were used to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote, especially in the South. After decades of discrimination, it would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.