15th Amendment: commentary

This was the last of the Reconstruction (post-Civil War) amendments, and was designed to close the last loophole in the establishment of civil rights for newly-freed slaves. As noted in the U.S. Constitution Online Website, it “ensured that a person's race, color, or prior history as a slave could not be used to bar that person from voting.” The new rights granted to male ex-slaves in the 14th Amendment included the right to vote, as is spelled out in the 15th Amendment. However, organized hate groups of whites in the Southern states (especially the Ku Klux Klan) found various ways to prevent blacks from exercising these rights, through intimidation, harassment, terrorism, and lynchings. This remained the social reality for Southern blacks for almost a century.

Without votes, blacks had no real political power, and no representation in Congress. Racial segregation, political invisibility, and the suspension of the most basic rights as U.S. citizens for blacks, were terrible injustices that could not be overlooked. There were many “Jim Crow” laws passed in the South to nullify whatever Constitutional rights blacks had on paper. Supporters of these laws claimed that the blacks liked it this way. Of course, they didn’t. But they were afraid to speak out, since the KKK and other racist groups were powerful and enjoyed local government support. And since they couldn’t vote, they had no political voice.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, groups of civil-rights activists drove down in chartered buses and carpools to Southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi, where segregation was worst, to encourage blacks to register to vote. The states made it virtually impossible for blacks to register by first requiring them to pass an extremely difficult written examination. Activists set up informal citizenship classes for blacks, educated them about their rights, taught them about the Constitution, and what they needed to know to pass the exam. Now prepared, they could register to vote.

Fearing a shift of political power from whites to blacks, opponents of civil rights tried to prevent this. Tremendous political and social opposition was stirred up against these voter-registration drives. The erupted in violence—brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations by local police, beatings of demonstrators, activists, and bystanders, torchings of activists’ buses and cars, multiple murders, firebombings, and lynchings.

But the Civil Rights Movement succeeded. Blacks won back their Constitutional right to vote, and began to participate eagerly and actively in the political process. Black mayors, legislators, governors, and Congresspeople became a welcome and accepted part of the political scene.