The right to vote is only one of the wide specter of rights, for which black population of the US had to struggle. This right has been granted by the US constitution, its’ 15th Amendment and later the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave new opportunities for African American voters. Therefore the history of the right to vote is inseparable from the overall fight of African Americans for equality and the civil rights movement. The history and development of one can be seen through the challenges of another. And, as a result, the final document on the voting right of the back population of America was passed in times of the greatest success of the civil rights movement.
1. Constitutional Rights of African Americans
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Even before the amendments to the federal Congress was making steps towards equality: “1789 Congress banned slavery in any federally held territory; in 1794, the exportation of slaves from any State was banned; and in 1808, the importation of slaves into any State was also banned” (Barton). Moreover, a number of states have given suffrage right to African American population long before the nation-wide laws. The first five were Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1776, New York a year later, and Massachusetts in 1780 (State Constitutions). Finally, in 1784 New Hampshire has introduced a constitution that protected voting rights for black population of the state. The Founding Fathers have started a process of desegregation with a number of Congressional acts that have banned all slavery on all federal territories as well as import and export of slaves.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1866 did not give the right to vote for all US citizens, it has set a basis for future actions (Timeline: Voting Rights Act). According to this document all American-born people were officially citizens of the country. This document is extremely important, as it created a background for the future constitutional amendments. This Civil Rights Act declared that despite race and color of skin all people are considered to be equal citizens and have equal citizen rights.
The three amendments of the 19th century have played a significant role for the development of the rights of African Americans. 13th amendment declared the illegality f slavery. It stated: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States” (The Constitution: Amendments 11-27). Thus, a year before the Civil Rights Act the 13th Amendment has replaced a part of the Constitution and created a basis for racial equality in the US. Next the 14th Amendment defined citizenship and, what is equally important, this Amendment also granted: “equal protection of the laws” (The Constitution: Amendments 11-27). Finally, 1866 the 15th Amendment was passed, which gave the right to vote to all American citizens despite their skin color or race. This meant that all African American men gained their suffrage right.
In the first decades of the US independence African Americans were granted a number of significant rights secured by states. And 100 years late the US Constitution ensured these rights (Timeline: Voting Rights Act). Not all the states agreed to these laws, but the fact was that the main law of the United States not only recognized all America-born people as its’ citizens, but gave them equal rights and protection by law. But although Black Americans were granted a right to vote in 1870, it took another century of limitations and restrictions to give African Americans a full-fledged right to freely execute their suffrage rights.
2. The Limitations of Voting Rights
But around a decade after the successful implementation of the three mentioned Amendments the process has not only slowed down but also even started to move backward. When Democrats regained some control over Congress, they’ve started a massive campaign against the rights of African Americans and the right to vote became one of the most targeted. The Southern states, which were controlled by Democrats, started to abridge their civil rights laws (Barton). A number of different limitations were introduced to stop African Americans from voting, which included strict taxation, segregation enforcement, literacy tests, and even physical violence.
Poll taxes were obligatory fees, which voters had to pay in order to vote. As the fee was quite high, the poor people were not able to pay and thus cast a vote. Taking into account the fact that African Americans were usually among the poorest groups of population, this was an obvious removal from the decision-making process in the country. Even though both black and white Americans were affected by the poll tax, African Americans, who have just started to establish own wellbeing, have obviously suffered more. The poll tax was enacted in South Carolina in 1876 (1876 North Carolina Constitution, 2835).
Literacy tests were required to eliminate black population from voting by proving their illiteracy. An above-average education was required from African Americans. The tests, which reached up to 20 pages, included such questions as “Name the rights a person has after he has been indicted by a grand jury” (America in Ferment). This was an obvious complication on the way of African Americans. As the dominating majority could not pass the test, they as well were not given a right to vote.
Black codes also known as the “Jim Crow laws” have limited not only freedoms, but also the economic opportunities of black population. In the late 19th century in only four years a number of laws was passed that stopped African Americans from voting, possessing property, serving on jury, or even entering cities without permission (1876 North Carolina Constitution, 2822). The final step of the anti-equality laws was the introduction of racial segregation.
Physical intimidation and violence was a popular mean in the fight for White domination in the Southern states. The Ku Klux Klan was a leader of this movement. Democrats were haunting down not only African Americans, but also white Republicans who tried to gain back the power in Southern states. The most popular form of physical terror was lynching. Despite all the Republican efforts to pass anti-lynching laws, it was commonly used in Southern states. Between 1882 and 1964 almost 5000 people were lunched, and only 2/3 of them were black (Barton).
These are only some means, which Democrats were using in order to deprive African Americans of their civil rights. Others were the “grandfather” laws, which legalized only those voters, whose grandfathers had a right to vote. And it meant that only rare black people were allowed to execute their right. Moreover, the majority of the Southern states have rewritten their constitutions. The new versions of documents introduced stricter laws that limited civil rights of African Americans. The election procedures were purposefully complicated in order to mislead black voters, who had little knowledge of the process. As a result, despite the constitutional Amendments, which gave African Americans a right to vote, in fact the rights of black population were limited by state legislation. Therefore only a century after the 15th Amendment was added to the US constitution African Americans were granted the actual right to vote.
3. Voting Rights in the 20th Century
In the 20th century the civil rights activists have united and began a nation-wide campaign against segregation and for equality. It started in the post-World War II period. As African Americans have fought in the War as well as the white soldiers did they expected to have same attitudes in the peaceful times. Unfortunately, the US has shown little changes in the attitudes towards black population. Segregation laws still existed and African Americans were treated with disrespect. But luckily the country was more ready for a change and there were some social and political leaders who were able to start the fight for civil rights and Black equality.
President Harry S. Truman is one of the most notable leaders who have contributed a lot to the civil rights of African Americans. His fist step was a report called "To Secure These Rights" published right after the World War II. It criticized the tolerable attitudes of the US population to segregation laws and addressed both the whole nation and the federal government asking them to take action. This President was the first one to introduce anti-segregation laws in army and more equality at a workplace. Going against the beliefs of his own party, Truman introduced anti-lynching laws and anti-poll tax law. The last one was especially important for the suffrage rights of African Americans as it gave a chance for poor black population to vote. Although his own party, the Democrats, has killed all Truman’s proposals, the action itself showed that the change has come even to the most conservative part of the population.
The next President to introduce changes to the civil rights of African Americans was Dwight D. Eisenhower, but the Congress that was dominated by Democrats has stopped all Eisenhower’s actions. Finally, the new Democratic president John F. Kennedy based his civil rights bill proposal on Eisenhower’s work. Kennedy’s assassination has stopped the bill from passing.
The pole tax was finally abolished by the 24th Amendment in 1964, which stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote … shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax” (The Constitution: Amendments 11-27). Therefore all financial limitations to vote were canceled in the 1964.
The most important law of the 20th century was introduced a year after the 24th Amendment. Finally, with the 1965 Voting Rights Act literary tests were banned. Almost all Republicans and the majority of Democrats have voted for the act. And a year after the Act came to action almost half a million of the US African American citizens have registered to vote. The Southern states have shown the amazing achievement of the Voting Rights Act, as from 5% in 1960 the number of black voters has risen to 60% in 1968 (Tuttle). And after a century of limitations African Americans again got a chance to freely cast their votes.
This research shows how the civil rights of African Americans went through times of extreme success and unbelievable downfalls. Despite the introduction of Amendments to the US constitution, which granted suffrage rights to African Americans back in the 19th century, it took another 100 years to actually give the black population a chance to vote freely. During this century of segregation and discriminations African Americans were almost thrown back to the times of slavery, as physical humiliations were as common as the psychological ones. And only after the World War II a change for the better begun. It took another 20 year to pass the Voting Rights Act, which finally gave African American people the possibility to influence the state decisions. And the risen percent of black voters showed that this changes was really anticipated.
Now, with an African American president serving a second term it is essential to look back at all the years of struggle and discriminations and understand how complicated was this path. And this was achieved only by generations of Americans, who supported civil rights back in late 19th century, who struggled through the years of segregation, and who have finally managed to unite in one mighty force in 1960s. All these steps have led to one goal – equality of all despite race and skin color, which exists now in the United States.