The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on February 3, 1870. 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.” The 15th Amendment guaranteed African-American men the right to vote. In addition, the right to vote could not be denied to anyone in the future based on a person’s race.

Although African-American men technically had their voting rights protected, in practice, this victory was short-lived. Local and state governments found ways to weaken the amendment to prevent African Americans from voting. Disenfranchisement is the word used to describe laws passed to prevent people from voting and obtaining rights other citizens have.

The actions to prevent African Americans from exercising their civil rights became known as “Jim Crow” laws. Some examples of Jim Crow laws are poll taxes (a fee required to vote—generally not applied to white voters), literacy tests (the Mississippi test asked applicants to copy a portion of the state constitution at the white administrator's discretion), or owning property as a condition of voting. Jim Crow laws were enforced by election boards or by groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, who intimidated African Americans with violence if they voted or wished to do so. The southern region of the United States made little or no effort to protect the voting rights of African Americans guaranteed by the Constitution.

The 15th Amendment was a milestone for civil rights. However, it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress that the majority of African Americans would be truly free to register and vote in large numbers.

The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution

The United States' 15th Amendment made voting legal for African-American men. However, voting for them was almost nonexistent in some places, especially in the South, because of threats, violence, and unethical practices, like poll taxes. Here, people in Harlem, New York City, around 1954, wait to vote.

amendment
Noun

change made to a law or set of laws.

disenfranchise
Verb

to take away certain rights, usually voting.

ethical
Adjective

morals and behaviors deemed acceptable by society

milestone
Noun

important event or stage in development.

ratify
Verb

to formally approve or confirm.

Reconstruction
Noun

(1865-1877) period during which the states formerly belonging to the Confederate States of America were transformed and integrated back into the United States following the Civil War.

servitude
Noun

slavery, bondage, or a condition in which one lacks the ability to make decisions for one’s self or determine one’s own way of life