A Brief History of Black Suffrage

Women voting in Baltimore via SNCC.org

Women voting in Baltimore via SNCC.org

The Civil War lasted from 1861-1865. The result of the Civil War was the end of hundreds of years of slavery in the United States. The amendments that brought the legal end to slavery, the citizenship of African Americans and enfranchisement of Blacks were the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. 

The 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment was ratified December 6, 1865 and it stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This means slavery or forced servitude is unconstitutional and illegal in the United States UNLESS someone has been convicted of a crime. This amendment is controversial because of the second part that allows involuntary servitude when convicted of a crime. It is what has led to the rise of the prison complex in the United States which many believe has replaced slavery in unfairly controlling minorities.

 The 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868 and it said “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.” This meant that formerly enslaved people officially became citizens of the United States and the states that they lived in. (This is also the amendment that is being challenged by President Trump who wants to end birthright citizenship).

 The 15th Amendment

men voting reconstruction.png

The 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870 and says “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” This amendment successfully gave African American MEN the right to vote because at this time in American history, no woman was extended suffrage.


Image of Black Radical Republicans elected to Political Office during Reconstruction via Library of Congress

Image of Black Radical Republicans elected to Political Office during Reconstruction via Library of Congress

These three amendments are some of the most important in African American History. They freed and legalized Black people, and enfranchised Black Men.  During Reconstruction, a time period that lasted from roughly 1865-1877, these amendments were exercised to their full extent. African American men took political office, organized, and Black men and women alike began taking active roles in the communities that once enslaved them. This came with great push back from the White southern communities and is what gave rise to the infamous Klu Klux Klan. Klan members began terrorizing Black communities with horrid violence and intimidation, targeting especially those who exercised their right to vote. Rape was used as a targeted form of violence against Black Women whose husband’s voted or became active in the community. Although not talked about often, African American Women’s history is a long legacy of sexual violence and intimidation; direct retaliation because of their race.

With the end of Reconstruction in 1877 mass intimidation, murder, and rape of Black women was used to keep African Americans from even registering to vote. That coupled with state mandated poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather laws, and other tactics, effectively suppressed the votes of African Americans for decades.

In 1920 the 19th Amendment passed.  It stated “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 sex.” White women everywhere rejoiced. Now, by all legal standards every United States Citizen had the right to vote, including African American Women and that right to vote could not be denied based on race or sex.  The violent intimidation of southern voters did not stop and the efforts of the state to legally suppress African American votes continued so that Southern Blacks continued to be disenfranchised.

Young woman with voter registration card, Fayette County via Time Magazine

Young woman with voter registration card, Fayette County via Time Magazine

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

This is why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was important. It was signed into law on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. It did not give African Americans the right to vote, it prevented the states from employing suppressive tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests to keep certain people, mainly African Americans, from voting.  The bill stated “An act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution…” the notable sections made it illegal for states to require qualifications or prerequisites for voting based on race. It also required states that were using tests or other devices to prevent African Americans from voting or that had less than 50% of the eligible voting population registered to vote before November 1, 1964 to have their elections monitored by the federal government. This act ended decades of voter suppression for African Americans.

Present Day

Portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been repealed by new legislation and voter suppression has taken new forms and targeted minorities and lower income people. Voter picture ID laws, disenfranchisement of convicted felons, and other tactics have been cited as adversely affecting certain groups of people. In the recent election we have seen multiple voting issues across the country most heavily in Florida and Georgia were ballots have gone uncounted, the states have challenged ballots based on signatures, and revoked voter registrations without the voters knowledge because they had not voted in the past two elections.

Voter suppression is not new and it has not gone away. Thinly veiled racists and elitist tactics to keep certain groups from exercising their right to vote are not a part of our American Democracy and activism is still needed to protect the voices of all American citizens.  


*It is important to note this is a history of suffrage that is specific to African Americans. Other minority groups such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx Americans have had their own journeys to full suffrage that do not exactly match this time line*

Andreia WardlawComment