Following the Civil War, Radical Republicans in Congress introduced a series of laws and constitutional amendments to try to secure civil and political rights for black people. This wing of the Republican Party was called “radical” because of its strong stance on these and other issues. The right that provoked the greatest controversy, especially in the North, concerned black male suffrage: the right of the black man to vote.
In 1867, Congress passed a law requiring the former Confederate states to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions. Ironically, even though African American men began voting in the South after 1867, the majority of Northern states continued to deny them this basic right.
In the North, the Republican’s once-huge voter majority over the Democratic Party was declining. Radical Republican leaders feared that they might lose control of Congress to the Democrats.
One solution to this problem called for including the black man’s vote in all Northern states. Republicans assumed the new black voters would vote Republican just as their brothers were doing in the South. By increasing its voters in the North and South, the Republican Party could then maintain its stronghold in Congress.
The Republicans, however, faced an incredible dilemma. The idea of blacks voting was not popular in the North. In fact, several Northern states had recently voted against black male suffrage.
In May 1868, the Republicans held their presidential nominating convention in Chicago and chose Ulysses S. Grant as their candidate. The Republicans agreed that African-American male suffrage continued to be a requirement for the Southern states, but decided that the Northern states should settle this issue for themselves.
Grant was victorious in the election of 1868, but this popular general won by a surprisingly slim margin. It was clear to Republican leaders that if they were to remain in power, their party needed the votes of black men in the North.
The 15th Amendment
When the new year began in 1869, the Republicans were ready to introduce a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the black man’s right to vote. For two months, Congress considered the proposed amendment. Several versions of the amendment were submitted, debated, rejected and then reconsidered in both the House and Senate.
Finally, at the end of February 1869, Congress approved a compromise amendment that did not even specifically mention the black man:
Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States 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.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Once approved by the required two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, the 15th Amendment had to be ratified by 28, or three-fourths, of the states. Due to the reconstruction laws, black male suffrage already existed in 11 Southern states. Since almost all of these states were controlled by Republican reconstruction governments, they could be counted on to ratify the 15th Amendment. Supporters of the 15th Amendment needed only 17 of the remaining 26 Northern and Western states in order to succeed. At this time, just nine of these states allowed the black man to vote. The struggle for and against ratification hung on what blacks and other political interests would do.
Only days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April, 1865, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In his speech, Douglass explained why the black man wanted the right to vote “in every state of the Union”:
It is said that we are ignorant; admit it. But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote ….What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.
While Congress debated the 15th Amendment early in 1869, 150 black men from 17 states assembled for a convention in Washington, D.C. This was the first national meeting of black Americans in the history of the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected president of the convention.
The delegates praised the Republicans in Congress for passing the reconstruction laws and congratulated General Grant on his election to the White House. They also pledged their continued support of the Republican Party.
Those attending the convention also spent time meeting with members of Congress, encouraging them to pass a strong amendment guaranteeing black male suffrage nationwide. When the meeting adjourned, the delegates were confident that a new era of democracy for the black man was about to begin.
The Democrats realized they were fighting for political survival. They feared ratification of the 15th Amendment would automatically create some 170,000 loyal black Republican voters in the North and West.
In debates over the amendment, Democrats argued against the ratification by claiming that the 15th Amendment restricted the states’ rights to run their own elections. The Democrats also charged the Republicans with breaking their promise of allowing the states, outside the South, to decide for themselves whether to grant black male suffrage. Democrat leaders cited the low level of literacy in the black population and they predicted black voters would be easily swayed by false promises and outright bribery.
Victory, Then Tragedy
Despite Democratic opposition, the Republicans steadily won ratification victories throughout 1869. Ironically, it was a Southern state, Georgia that clinched the ratification of the 15th Amendment on February 2, 1870.
On March 30, President Grant officially proclaimed the 15th Amendment as part of the Constitution. Washington and many other American cities celebrated. More than 10,000 blacks paraded through Baltimore. In a speech on May 5, 1870, Frederick Douglass rejoiced. “What a country — fortunate in its institutions, in its 15th Amendment, in its future.”
The jubilation over victory did not last long. While Republicans acquired loyal black voters in the North, the South was an entirely different matter. The Ku Klux Klan and other violent racist groups intimidated black men who tried to vote, or who had voted, by burning their homes, churches and schools, even by resorting to murder.
When the election for president in 1876 ended with a dispute over electoral votes, the Republicans made a deal with the Southern Democrats. First, the Southerners agreed to support Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes for president. In turn, the Republicans promised to withdraw troops from the South and abandon federal enforcement of black’s rights, including the right to vote.
Within a few years, the Southern state governments required blacks to pay voting taxes, pass literacy tests and endure many other unfair restrictions on their right to vote. In Mississippi, 67 percent of the black adult men were registered to vote in 1867; by 1892 only 4 percent were registered. The political deal to secure Hayes as president rendered the 15th Amendment meaningless. Another 75 years passed before black voting rights were again enforced in the South.
For Discussion and Writing
For Further Reading
Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass; selections from his writings, edited, with an introduction, by Philip S. Foner. New York International Press, 1964.
Gillette, William. The Right to Vote: Politics and Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1965.
A C T I V I T Y
Voting Rights Convention
In this activity, you will have a chance to re create history by going back to the year 1868 to participate in a voting rights convention. You will be assigned to a group that had a particular viewpoint on voting rights in 1868. Your group and four others at the convention will write a voting rights amendment to recommend to Congress. In this way, your class will have the opportunity to improve upon the original 15th Amendment that was passed by Congress early in 1869. For the purposes of this activity, it does not matter what your own sex or race is when you are assigned to one of the convention groups listed below.
Voting Rights Convention Groups: Republicans, Blacks, Abolitionists, Woman Suffragists, Democrats
Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page from Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
The University of Alabama was founded in 1831. For the next 121 years, the school’s unwritten “whites only” policy went unchallenged.
That began to change when on September 4, 1952 a pair of young women, Autherine Lucy and Pollie Anne Myers, would begin a long, arduous battle to end segregation at the University of Alabama.
Lucy and Myers met at Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama, where Lucy was earning her bachelor’s degree in English. Following their graduation from Miles College, Myers suggested the young women apply to Alabama for graduate school. “I thought she was joking at first, I really did,” Lucy told writer E. Culpepper Clark, author of The Schoolhouse Door, chronicling the fight to desegregate the University of Alabama. Myers wasn’t kidding.
The pair sent inquiry letters to the university on September 4, 1952, and on September 13, just nine days later, they each received a letter welcoming them to Alabama.
On September 19, when Lucy and Myers submitted applications that indicated their race, admissions officials quickly changed their minds. The next day, September 20, 1952, the Dean of Admissions told the women a mistake had been made and the pair was turned away.
As news of Alabama’s actions spread throughout the black community, Arthur Shores and Thurgood Marshall, two of the most prominent African American civil rights lawyers in the nation, immediately went to work on behalf of Lucy and Myers. Shores first wrote to the university president, John Gallalee, and asked for the women to be reinstated. Gallalee refused.
So, as September 1952 came to an end, Marshall and Shores launched what would become a three-year legal effort — Lucy and Myers vs. University of Alabama.
However, a year before the Lucy and Myers court hearing, one of the most significant events in American history took place. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. The Court unanimously declared segregation illegal. The policy of “separate but equal” was cast aside.
On June 28, 1955, just 13 months after the Brown decision, U.S. District Judge Harlan Grooms heard Myers and Lucy’s case against the University of Alabama. He listened to arguments from both sides that day; 24 hours later, Grooms ruled in favor of the young women.
Finally, three years after Autherine Lucy and Pollie Anne Myers had been denied admission into the university, there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the pair. That was far from the case.
Hoping to discredit the young women, Alabama had hired private investigators to dig into their backgrounds. Shortly after Groom’s ruling the school discovered that Myers had been pregnant and unwed at the time she applied. A violation of the school’s moral codes, Myers was disqualified from admission.
Now Lucy faced walking onto the all-white campus alone. Grudgingly admitted into the school — she was denied dining and dormitory privileges — Lucy stepped onto the campus on February 3, 1956, nearly four years after she had been turned away.
There were no incidents during her first two days of classes. However, that changed on Monday, February 6. Students mobbed her, initially shouting hate-filled epithets. Lucy had to be driven by university officials to her next class at the Education Library building, all the while being bombarded with rotten eggs.
Once there, Lucy locked herself in a room and prayed, she said later, for strength, fearing she was going to die at the hands of the throng. Finally Denny Chimes arrived to take her home. The mob quickly turned on him. With the horde distracted, Lucy was secreted to a patrol car and taken safely away from the campus. Later that night, the university’s Board of Trustees voted to remove Lucy, claiming it was for her own protection.
The event made news worldwide. It was largely felt that local police had simply let the mob rampage. Attorneys Shores and Marshall filed a complaint saying the university had been complicit in permitting the crowd to intimidate and threaten Lucy. The complaint was a tactical mistake.
Unable to demonstrate the school played a role in the mob action, Marshall and Shores withdrew the complaint but not before it had gone public. That allowed the university to accuse Lucy of defaming the school and its administration. This was legal grounds for her expulsion. For all intents and purposes, Alabama had won.
While Lucy felt defeated, Marshall, who would become the first African American Supreme Court Justice in 1967, thought differently. In a letter to Lucy he said:
“Whatever happens in the future, remember for all concerned, that your contribution has been made toward equal justice for all Americans and that you have done everything in your power to bring this about.”
Seven years later, Lucy’s battle for equal justice finally bore fruit. In June 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first African Americans to enroll and become full-time students of the University of Alabama. Malone, who entered as a junior, received her bachelor’s degree in Business Management in 1965.
Thirty-two years after Autherine Lucy was expelled from Alabama she was asked to return and talk to a history class at the university. Shortly afterward, a pair of faculty members implored the university to reverse Lucy’s expulsion. Alabama did just that, sending Lucy a letter in April 1988 inviting her to return.
In 1989, Lucy returned to the university to begin her master’s degree in elementary education — the same year her daughter Grazia started her undergraduate studies. In 1992, mother and daughter attended commencement together to receive their degrees. Autherine Lucy was given a standing ovation when she walked across the stage.
Today a $25,000 endowed scholarship at Alabama bears Autherine Lucy’s name. When her portrait was installed at the university in 1992, it was evident her courage and sense of justice had helped change American society.
|All the best,
yep, just another rant … Please Vote to keep #BidenHarris intact 2022! This is a post from 2013 tweaked
The 113th-116th Congress’ are long gone, but it should be noted they were “in session” or “at work” fewer days than most of their constituents, even with the attack of #Covid19 … the people they seem to keep saying depend on the government “tit” for “entitlements” then without remorse proceed to vote against the average voter and their lives … some Republicans call “average voter” their constituents lazy and these constituents continue to vote against their best interests? I still cannot understand this. The nonsense continued with the 114th, 115th, 116th Congress, and now here we are with the 117th Congress. Thank goodness the 117th Congress is mostly a predominatly Democratic Party. we have a slim but winning trifecta. We all must support trust and push for great policies that help ALL Not a select few in America.
We the people were governed by a guy with no political experience; seemingly no sense of real loyalty to what most of us call #AmericanValues, doesn’t seem to be a true Republican or a person who leans left though the fact is he has given $$ to both, he said a lot, done little though the executive orders he once hated when President Obama was in office came fast hard and against We The People. His comments for the action incoherent at times and a whole lot of those policies will be doing some damage shortly… btw, can somebody tell this to trump voters, who while now possibly are all insurrectionist; most will still reap the benefits the rest of us vote for and that is offensive. The trifecta he held, aka our 3 branches of government, was capable of doing the right thing but they decided slashing, burning, cutting average voter lives to shreds, stalled CHIP, and holding DACA/Dreamers politically hostage was better for their agenda. This group once called DACA kids #incrediblekids now saying on every platform possible that they are bad folks, illegals, criminals, and murderers. This trifecta government held a whole lot of secret meetings, seemingly making secret deals constantly; lest we understand or accept that all of this talk is not only cheap … The truth is being manipulated and what most of us know as the truth has officially became known as “alternative facts” … sigh
What happened to Congress?
It should make Americans all wonder if $175K for members of Congress is just too much for public servants that work less than 120 days a year as members of Congress, led by Republicans. The thing is they seem to think the rest of us need 2 maybe 3 jobs, deserve less social services among some other stupid things like fewer migrant families though reports are that the Trump administration has requested foreign workers for Maralago numerous times a year ..smdh and I am not expert but the GDP will suffer if he goes full out to ban the browns and blacks
Yes, breathe in slowly and slowly release your breath … be still, then repeat the process when needed as insanity in the News, and Politics begins to try and make viewers accept the trump era in “alternative facts” land put on loop mode. The idea that Americans should just trust someone in the highest office or a member of Congress on face value is a joke but when you catch the work that looks like “performance art” seeming not only like they believe what they are saying but assume that no one is paying attention to their behavior on the floor of Congress because they certainly act like we all have amnesia every time they get a chance to be on cable TV.
So, again … Congress, if led by republicans will say one thing while in front of the camera while planning a takedown in secret rooms; tossing their title of Public Servant down the nearest sewer which makes you wonder how we will ever pass the Voters Right Act, immigration reform and other bills For Americans when a good faith effort is kept off the floor of Congress because of political competition and poison pill amendments added. There was a time when we would tell the Republican Party they need to be more inclusive because trust, respect, and future votes are not seasonal or easily earned nor should they be. The current republican party has many leaving stating this party is no longer worthy … due to white nationalism or something even worse.
Who else felt like the era of trump while not over per se, his reign as POTUS felt so much longer than four years
on 1/6/21, the worst happened
The fact is, the era of trump created misguided, awful people gullible to false misleading information and some were just waiting for this guy to finally arrive. We have seen a whole lot of divisive behavior since 2016, which makes a left-leaning voter wonder, can Republicans continue on this path, continue to get away with so much, and not pay for the bs that happened in the 2016 or 2020 elections and at the DC Mall? Okay, I don’t know about you but the number of times I actually had to stop and take a deep breath as we watched the government of trump tried to take our country to the extreme right rivals the number of times we had to you listen to Republicans continue to say one thing in front of the camera while voting the opposite on the floor of congress. Some of us watched in horror how they acted; remember (act) like they plan to be bipartisan but they continued to show themselves to be less than trustworthy less than bipartisan and their votes … Please check any and all republican members voting records! This is proof of how they actually feel about constituents that cannot be denied or overlooked.
Republicans have been waiting for a trifecta that allows them to vote and pass bills without hearings or much debate. So, folks must call your member of Congress because the next generation is counting on us because climate change is real, Women deserve reproductive rights, the voting rights act should be permanent, immigration reform and a real jobs act is the American path toward Stability, not Austerity though Republicans seem to keep pushing or that 2007 financial collapse just didn’t impact them enough
– When you’re a rich member of Congress; you tend to say do as We say Not as we do?
I want America to wake up, push back, and demand all members of Congress do the People’s business
Republicans see themselves as stewards of the purse strings in the House of Representatives, but it does not give them the right to toss #WeThePeople under the bus, who as taxpayers give them not only a salary but government healthcare?
All elections from here on will decide what kind of life we all want our next generation to navigate through … please take the time to understand what and who is causing America to decline at this time … The House of Representatives holds the American #PurseStrings which is why Americans have been held, hostage when Republicans are given that task to govern… try leaning left
Black History Month may be over, but, we can celebrate the stories that make up our history throughout the year.
We are making history every day thanks to the men and women who serve our communities all over the country, fighting for justice and equality.
The NAACP’s commitment to those who move black history forward has been unbroken for more than a century. Let’s continue that commitment together. Become a member of the NAACP. Support our work and join us in making new stories—American stories.
Every time a new voter is registered, or we march in unison to a state capitol, lifting our voices for those who can’t, or fight to end a “Stand Your Ground” law, we are creating black history—American history. Not every hero is as well known as W. E. B. DuBois, Harriet Tubman, or Rosa Parks, but this in no way diminishes the measure of these accomplishments and contributions.
NAACP members stand behind these champions by fighting for the things that matter to all of us. When we work to ensure every person has the right to vote, when we demand an end to racial profiling, when we help to ensure folks have access to health insurance, when we fight for better education and an end to economic inequality, it amplifies the work being done by our unsung heroes every day. We all know that black history is more than one month of note—we stand tall throughout the year. Stand with us. Join us in making history. Become an NAACP member today:
Thank you for making history with us,
Lorraine C. Miller Interim President and CEO
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said
“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”