Black Suffrage – A History of African American Voting Rights

Suffrage, in a democratic system of government, is the right to vote and actively participate in the election of political representatives and other public officials. It may also extend to include the right to reject legislation. Universal political suffrage in the United States, or political franchise, has been a gradual process of the extension of voting rights from privileged groups such as white male Americans to the entire adult population. In many parts of the world, exclusion from the voting process has often been based on factors such as race, gender, religion, social class, residency, criminality, and literacy among many others. Historically, voting in the United States has been denied to many Americans on the basis of some of these factors. Black suffrage has a complicated and violent history, and is closely associated with the evolution of democracy and social justice in the United States.   

Early Black Voting Rights, Civil War and Reconstruction

Black Americans, initially, were not considered American citizens and, therefore, did not have the right to vote. In fact, upon independence, the Constitution of the United States declared African Americans to be 3/5ths of a person. In doing so, the state formally recognized the superiority of the White Americans and the institution of slavery. Early laws such as the Naturalization Act of 1790 granted naturalized citizenship to free White Americans, thereby excluding slaves, free African-Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants and Asians. However, states were given the power to grant voting rights at the state level. Before the Civil War, free Black men only had the right to vote in 3 states – New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – of which, 2 states – New Jersey in 1807 and Pennsylvania in 1838 – rescinded those rights.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the bloodiest war in American history and was fought between the Union and the Confederate States of America that had seceded. Contrasting views on slavery were among the major causes of the conflict. Two years into the war, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Declaration which promised and declared freedom for slaves within the Confederacy in the event of a Union victory. This act helped the Union gain international support and also resulted in the enlistment of nearly 200,000 Black soldiers fighting in Union ranks. The war resulted in a Union victory and in the freedom of nearly 4 million enslaved Americans.

The end of the Civil War saw the United States enter uncharted territory. The war was followed by the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) during which, various issues such as African American citizenship, voting rights and other civil rights were addressed.

The Emancipation was formalized with the passage of the 13th Amendment (1865), which banned slavery and other forms of forced labor. The 14th Amendment (1868) granted citizenship to African Americans and changed the status of African Americans from being 3/5ths of a person to being equal to a white man. The 15th Amendment (1870) addressed voting rights and stated that the right to vote should not be denied on the basis of race, color or previous servitude. This, effectively, extended voting rights to African American men. These three amendments are known as The Civil War Amendments.

The Black Codes

President Andrew Johnson’s leniency towards the South brought with it a new set of problems for African Americans. The land which had been confiscated by the Union during the war and redistributed to freed slaves was given back to pre-war owners. Former confederate states were given a fair amount of powers such as the right to determine voting requirements.

The laws that followed have been called the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that were enacted to restrict the freedoms for Black Americans. As slaves, Black Americans had been prevented from becoming literate, and a majority of them remained poor even after abolition. Many Southern states, therefore, required Black voters to pass literacy tests, pay poll taxes, and white-only Democratic primaries. These laws were put in place to make voting difficult or impossible for Black voters. Many times, Black voters were even subjected to outright intimidation and violence.

African American men and women continued to fight to overcome these barriers. New groups and movements such as the NAACP, Niagara Movement and many other came into existence. The late 19th and early 20th century saw an exponential increase in Black activism as well as in the efforts for achieving universal suffrage.

The 19th Amendment

Many historians trace the origins of the Women’s Suffrage Movement to the Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. However, the initial suffrage movement was a fight for the voting rights of white women. While African American males had been given the right to vote in 1868, women – regardless of race – were prohibited from casting a ballot.

Over the next few decades, the fight for women’s suffrage and African American activism became highly interconnected. The long struggle for women’s suffrage led to incremental changes in voting rights across the United States. Wyoming became the first territory to grant unrestricted voting rights to women in 1969.

Utah followed in 1870. The movement saw some progress over the next few decades until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed.

The 19th Amendment effectively prohibited all US states and territories from denying the right to vote based on gender. However, like the 15th Amendment, this came with its own set of problems. The 19th Amendment did not guarantee the right to vote, merely made it unconstitutional to deny a woman the right to vote. Women, like African American Men, were subjected to a range of state-level restrictions based on age, residency and more. These restrictions were even worse for African American women as they had to face race-based barriers as well. However, many Black women showed up to vote despite these obstacles.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The world changed for African Americans after the civil war. The 3 Civil War Amendments as well as the 19th Amendment went a long way in helping Black Americans gain access to unprecedented freedoms, rights and opportunities. However, the situation was far from perfect.

Many states and territories, especially in the American south found ways to oppress the Black community to an extent that the abolition of slavery was a mere façade. The Black codes, segregation laws and rampant racism meant that there was still a long way to go before African Americans could achieve some semblance of equality and social justice. The prevalent violence, racism and injustice had brought a new wave of activism by the mid-20th century. This lead to an increase in violence and unrest which, ultimately, led to an organized movement for rights which came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.

The movement originated in the 1950s and lasted until the late 1960s and was successful in bring renewed attention to the infringement of civil rights including the various restrictions on Black voting rights. What followed was the assassination of Black civil rights leaders, mass scale protests, demonstrations and riots. This resulted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which allowed federal prosecution of any individual or entity that attempted to prevent African Americans and other citizens from exercising their right to vote.

The Civil Rights Movement Also resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that attempted to address and remove the loopholes that allowed some states to put restrictions on Black voting rights. Literacy tests and other restrictions were deemed unconstitutional and were banned. Poll taxes were also banned as a result of a Supreme Court ruling in 1966. The Act also ensured federal supervision in some states and areas where large numbers of Black voters were unable to register to vote. This led to a significant increase in African American voter turnout in the 1969 elections.

The Civil Rights Movement also resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that guaranteed greater fairness and equality between the races, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that ended discriminatory practices in housing and real estate.

Black Voting Rights Today

The Civil Rights Era changed the course of American history. It gave African Americans and other minorities the ability to fight against injustice and racism. By 1969, the number of registered Black voters rose to 61% of the African American population, and by 1980 Black voter turnout surpassed the rest of the country. In the 2012 elections, the percentage of Black voter turnout exceeded that of white voters for the first time in American history.

However, the struggle is far from over. A 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and once again allowed states to change voting laws without federal approval. This led to a number of states imposing new restrictions on voters. While proponents of these new restrictions, such as limiting early voting and requiring a photo ID, say that such measures prevent voting fraud, statistics indicate the these restrictions have had a disproportionately greater impact on poor, elderly, and Black and Latino voters.


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