Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Frances Albrier Collection
When there are barriers to the ballot, what does democracy look like?
The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed.Rep. John Lewis 2020
You can lose it.
For most of the nation’s first century, the right to vote was almost entirely restricted to white property-owning men. This version of an American democracy based on racial, gender, and economic privilege coexisted with and was reinforced by the institution of race-based chattel slavery. In 1865, the end of the Civil War brought an end to legalized slavery in the United States. It also ushered in the revolutionary time period known as Reconstruction. As newly freed African Americans stepped forward to claim their full rights as citizens — including the right to vote — they defined and demanded a new vision of American democracy based on principles of racial equality.
Reconstruction 1865 - 1877
Give us the suffrage and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves.Convention of Freedmen in Virginia 1865
Freedmen's Conventions and Black Codes
In 1865 and 1866, African Americans held political conventions in states across the South. They protested their treatment by the governments of former Confederate states, which had agreed to abolish slavery but also enacted Black Codes, discriminatory laws that restricted the civil rights of newly freed people and forced them to sign labor contracts with white planters. Freedmen’s conventions drew national attention to the injustices of Black Codes. The conventions also petitioned Congress for voting rights and recognition as equal citizens under the law.
"Whatever may be tolerated in monarchical and despotic governments, no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them."
— Frederick Douglass, "Reconstruction," The Atlantic, December, 1866
We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Speech to Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention, May 10, 1866
African American Women and Equal Rights
During the Reconstruction era, black women helped lead the struggle to create a more just, free, and equal society from the ashes of slavery. In May 1866, at the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, writer and longtime antislavery activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper shared the platform alongside white suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In her speech, Harper reminded the audience — women and men, black and white — they all shared a common interest in the cause of freedom and justice. At the convention, Harper and other activists formed the American Equal Rights Association, which vowed to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the Right of Suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.”
Reconstructing the Vote
In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which placed former Confederate states under military rule until they ratified the 14th Amendment and established new constitutions guaranteeing equal rights and protections to African Americans. Under the Reconstruction Acts, black men in southern states could vote and hold office for the first time. They served as delegates to state constitutional conventions and replaced the Black Codes with new laws that protected civil rights and established public education for all children. While not allowed to vote, black women attended political meetings alongside men and voiced their opinions on issues. Many also accompanied their husbands and other male relatives to the polls.
The 15th Amendment
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.
—15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1870
While the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 established voting rights for black men in the South, most northern states, except Maine and Vermont, still restricted the vote to white men. That changed in 1870 with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which declared that states could not deny the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Supporters of the amendment celebrated the opening of the polls to African American men, whose votes helped secure the reelection of Republican president Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
The 15th Amendment also sparked debates and division between white and black suffrage activists. Many white leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, opposed the amendment because it did not ban restrictions based on sex. They argued their status as white women made them morally and intellectually superior and more qualified to vote than black men. Black women, however, refused to accept either race or sex as a defining criteria for voting rights. Most supported the 15th Amendment and voting rights for black men as an important step toward universal suffrage for all Americans.
I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, I shall neither fawn nor cringe nor stoop to beg for my rights.Henry McNeal Turner “Speech on the Eligibility of Colored Members to Seats in the Georgia Legislature,” 1868
Constructing Black Political Power
As it is today, the right to vote during Reconstruction was about more than casting a ballot—it was also about the right to run for and hold elected office, and the ability to have political representation at the local, state, and national levels. Between 1865 and 1876, as federal laws removed racial barriers to the ballot box and political office, over 1,500 African American men held public office in southern state and local governments. They served as state senators and representatives, lieutenant governors, city council members, sheriffs, justices of the peace, superintendents of education, tax collectors, and more. Most were elected in districts with majority-black populations. Perhaps the most visible example of African American political gains during Reconstruction was the election of the first black senators and representatives to the U.S. Congress. While these officials represented the newly freed constituents of their southern states, they also advocated for the rights of African Americans nationwide.
It is the fixed purpose of the Democratic Party in the South that the Negro shall not vote, and murder is a common means of intimidation to prevent them.Attorney General Alfonso Taft 1876
Reconstructing White Supremacy
During Reconstruction, white southern Democrats used violence, intimidation, and electoral fraud to suppress the votes of black men, who mostly supported the Republican Party. The federal government used military force to protect black voting rights, but this protection largely ended after 1877. As Democrats regained control of state governments in the South, they passed laws designed to prevent African Americans from voting, using tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests to get around the 15th Amendment’s ban on race-based voting laws.
As white southerners suppressed black political activity and denied black men the vote, most African American office holders lost their offices. At the national level, 22 African Americans had held seats in Congress between 1870 and 1901. After Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina left office in 1901, there were no black U.S. representatives in Congress again until 1929. No black U.S. senator would be elected again until 1967.
"It is an undisputed fact the Negro vote in the State of Alabama, as well as most of the other Southern States, have been effectively suppressed … in some instances by constitutional amendment and State legislation, in others by cold-blooded fraud and intimidation."
— 'Defense of the Negro Race -- Charges Answered' speech by NC Representative George H. White, in the House of Representatives, January 29, 1901.
Women's Suffrage 1870 - 1920
Every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for woman’s suffrage; every argument for woman’s suffrage is an argument for Negro suffrage; both are great movements in democracy.W. E. B. Du Bois 1915
Women and the Vote
African American women were among the earliest and strongest advocates for women’s right to vote. They included activist and journalist Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who in 1871 led a delegation of 60 women, black and white, to attempt to register to vote in Washington, D.C. Cary later testified before the House Judiciary Committee to protest the denial of her right to vote, declaring that the “crowning glory of American citizenship is that it may be shared equally by people of every nationality, complexion and sex.”
In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was established in Washington, D.C., electing Mary Church Terrell as its first president. The organization played a pivotal role in the struggle for women’s suffrage and also promoted other social reforms, including anti-lynching and temperance. Along with the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NACW linked women’s voting rights to the fight for racial equality and social justice.
Within the women’s suffrage movement, however, racial divides persisted and reflected the system of segregation and disfranchisement that relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship. Black civil rights activists called out white leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for refusing to condemn racial injustice in the South and promoting a position that W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, described as “Votes for White Women Only.” At the 1913 woman suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., white organizers asked African American delegates to march at the rear in a segregated group rather than with the state delegations. Ida B. Wells-Barnett famously defied this instruction, telling her fellow Illinois delegates, “if they did not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost.”
Not until woman … had the ballot to be used for her protection and self-defence can she hope to secure the rights and privileges to which she is entitled.Mary Church Terrell 1901
The 19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, extended the right to vote to women nationwide. However, the same methods used to disfranchise black men throughout the South after the passage of the 15th Amendment were also used to keep black women from voting. It would take four more decades, another federal law, and a mass civil rights movement that came to be known as “the Second Reconstruction” to make good on the Constitution’s promise of voting rights for African Americans.
Civil Rights 1941 - 1965
All of the statutes, both federal and state, which protect the individual rights of Americans are important to Negroes as well as other citizens.Thurgood Marshall 1942
The Second Reconstruction
A century after the end of slavery and Reconstruction, a new generation of African Americans rose up to claim the full rights of citizenship that had been promised but long denied to them, including the right to vote. Across the South and nationwide, civil rights activists organized and mobilized to register voters and challenge discriminatory voting laws. An early victory came in 1944, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s argument in Smith v. Allwright that the Texas state Democratic Party’s policy of holding primary elections that excluded black voters was unconstitutional.
In 1964, the 24th Amendment was ratified, banning the use of the poll tax in federal elections. Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker led a delegation of activists to the 1964 Democratic National Convention to represent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, challenging the state’s traditional Democratic Party that was dominated by white segregationists.
"We are not in the final stages of the freedom struggle.
We are really just beginning."
— Ella Baker, Address at the Hattiesburg Freedom Day Rally, January 21, 1964
In March 1965, Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a march for voting rights in Alabama. Six hundred marchers were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma by Alabama law enforcement officers and brutally attacked. Television coverage of “Bloody Sunday” outraged viewers. After a federal judge intervened, 300 marchers joined a second walk from Selma to Montgomery and the power of their commitment aided the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress in March 1965, the same month that voter registration protests began in Selma, Alabama. The violence there added pressure on Congress to act, and the bill passed in four months. The law outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes, and other obstacles to voting. It gave the federal government the authority to take over voter registration wherever voting rights were threatened.
The protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had widespread impact within the African American community and beyond. The landmark law and its subsequent amendments have removed barriers to the ballot for other historically marginalized citizens including Native Americans, people of Asian descent, and non-English speakers.
African American Political Representation
The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act led to dramatic increases in black voter registration and number of African Americans elected to state and local office. The late 1960s saw the first black mayors elected in major U.S. cities, including Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Ohio, and Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana. African American political representation also increased at the national level, with Edward Brooke of Massachusetts becoming the first black U.S. senator elected since Reconstruction, and Shirley Chisholm of New York becoming the first black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president.
The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, bringing a new wave of younger voters to the polls to have their voices heard on issues such as affirmative action, women’s rights, and the Vietnam War. By the early 1990s, African American political representation finally reached and surpassed Reconstruction-era levels. At the same time, efforts to roll back and restrict voting rights began gaining momentum.
Continuing the Fight 2000 - Today
The Voting Rights Act is no ordinary legislation … It is extraordinary because Congress embarked on a mission long delayed and of extraordinary importance, to realize the purpose and promise of the 15th Amendment.Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dissent from the bench in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, 2013
Why Voting Matters
In 2000, reports of voter suppression in Florida during the U.S. presidential election, including the purge of thousands of eligible black voters from county registration rolls, prompted an NAACP lawsuit and a U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigation. The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002 with the goal of improving the election process nationwide, required updating of voting equipment at the local level and better voter registration lists to ensure eligible voters were not refused access to the ballot.
In 2006, Congress passed the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Cesar E. Chavez, Barbara Jordan, William Velazquez and Dr. Hector Garcia Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act. Among its provisions it extended the life of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and provided for federal observers of elections to prevent voter fraud and misapplication of voting laws. In 2008, the U.S. presidential election saw the most racially and ethnically diverse voter turnout in U.S. history. For the first time, black women had the highest voter turnout rate of any racial, ethnic, and gender group.
Since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, states nationwide have passed laws that place new restrictions on voting rights. These measures, which include the introduction of voter ID requirements and limits on early voting, disproportionately impact African Americans and other racial minorities, as well as young and elderly voters, people with lower incomes, and people with disabilities. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v. Holder struck down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional.
"Let's be clear: Voter suppression is real. From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy."
— Stacey Abrams, 2019
Reconstruction changed the nation in fundamental ways. Three new amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, provided equal protection of the law for all citizens, and banned racial discrimination in voting. But the promise of these laws alone would not secure the visions of freedom that African Americans pursued, if the nation was not willing to uphold and enforce them.
We must keep on talking, protesting, praying, appealing, and agitating but we must do more — we must ACT and ACT NOW, PROMPTLY AND VIGOROUSLY. We have health, we have strength, we have intelligence, we have money — let us use all these God-given elements to win our battle for liberty, opportunity and social justice.Ida B. Wells-Barnett 1917