Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fifteenth Amendment

The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citizens of the nation are excluded from its privileges in any State. It seems to me very desirable that this question should be settled now, and I entertain the hope and express the desire that it may be by the ratification of the fifteenth article of amendment to the Constitution.

Ulysses S. Grant, First Inaugural, March 4, 1869

One week before President Grant gave his inaugural address, Congress proposed what would be the fifteenth article of amendment.  One year later, the states ratified it.

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XV

Grant enforced this amendment during his presidency.

After he left office, however, due to a political deal having to do with resolution of the close and controversial election of 1876, the federal government stopped the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment.  As a result, most black Americans, particularly those in the Southern states, could not exercise the right to vote for nearly a century.

It took the Civil Rights Movement that began in the mid-1950s to persuade the federal government to pass meaningful nationwide civil rights legislation.  First, there was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The Voting Rights Act, signed into law on August 6, 1965, exists so that the federal government can enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, which the amendment explicitly authorizes Congress to do.

The Voting Rights Act banned states from using various devices (literacy tests, having to demonstrate educational achievement, etc.) to prevent citizens from voting.  The Act also had a temporary provision that prevented recalcitrant jurisdictions, mostly in the South, from making any changes to voting laws or procedures without the permission from the federal government.  This temporary provision is known as Section 5 of the Act; it took 48 years for the temporary provision to effectively expire and only due to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

Many in the legal community believe that the Voting Rights Act is one of the most effective civil rights laws in American history.  Black Americans have access to the polling place across the country.  It is also the case that Mississippi, which has a troubling history with regard to allowing blacks to vote, has the highest number of black elected officials in the nation.

However, as with any piece of legislation, there are public officials who are apt to use a law to further some other political goal.

Despite its apparent success, federal officials have on occasion misused the Voting Rights Act.  There are even provisions in the Act — amendments included after 1965 — that are completely unconnected to the Fifteenth Amendment.  There will be more on this in a future post.

On this fiftieth anniversary, we should celebrate the successes of the Voting Rights Act.  However, this would be a good time to carefully examine whether we are using this important piece of legislation in the way it was originally conceived.

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