Today’s post was written by Joshua Schroeder, archives technician at the National Archives in College Park.
The National Archives latest Black History portal delves into one of the most important threads of American history: securing the right to vote. Suffrage for Black Americans remains an important aspect of American history because voting is an essential duty and tenet of citizenship. Suffrage equality for all Americans continues to face challenges to this day. The National Archives’ Voting Rights Portal highlights why it is a vital necessity for Americans to understand the history of African Americans and the Vote. The portal highlights the need for securing enfranchisement and the dire consequences when the right to vote is restricted.
Prior to the Civil War, Black Americans, free or enslaved, were not recognized as citizens. While citizenship was not defined in the original Constitution, it was confined to white Americans. Just a few states allowed for free Black male suffrage in state elections. By 1857, with the Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling, the Supreme Court explicitly stated that Black Americans were categorically barred from citizenship, and therefore voting, in the United States.
That the vote was integral to securing Black Americans’ freedom became apparent as soon as the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified and slavery abolished. In 1865 and 1866, Southern states, still largely governed by former Confederates, immediately enacted the “Black Codes.” These local and state laws severely restricted the civil rights and abilities of African Americans to live independently and returned them to a de facto state of servitude. No longer enslaved, but not granted citizenship nor the vote, they remained vulnerable to further oppression.
During the late 1860s and into the 1870s, legislation and Constitutional Amendments were passed that granted African Americans full citizenship. First, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, followed by the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which unequivocally gave citizenship and equal protection under the law to all persons born in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, stated the right to vote could not be limited “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” With the right to vote came an unprecedented amount of Black elected officials – including one governor, two U.S. Senators, over a dozen Congressmen, and numerous other state and local officeholders.
However, a white supremacist backlash arrived swiftly. The Jim Crow system was constructed and a main target was the Black Americans’ right to vote. In addition to laws, white citizens formed groups made on hate. Extralegal terrorist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Leagues intimidated voters, candidates, and would even orchestrate armed coups of local and state governments.
As Jim Crow segregation was solidified, so was the mass disenfranchisement of Black Americans – with policies such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Several Supreme Court rulings created new loopholes with which to restrict Black Americans from voting. The United States v. Cruikshank (1876) and United States v. Reese (1876) rulings, among many others, gutted the federal government’s ability to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, which allowed for restrictive voting laws to go unchallenged.
Reclaiming the vote required nearly a century of mass social activism. The Freedom Summer of 1964 and the Selma Marches in 1965 demonstrated the great lengths that people would go to fight for the vote, and pushed Congress to remedy these wrongs. Ratified in 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment abolished poll taxes and in 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which forbade discriminatory voting restrictions and allowed for meaningful federal enforcement of voting rights laws.
These two acts fostered an explosion in Black voting and formal political participation. Black politicians were elected to office throughout the nation, including the Deep South. In 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was formed and is composed of Black politicians in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 1972, Representative Shirley Chisholm (an original member of the CBC) sought the Democratic nomination for President. The group’s membership included Civil Rights movement icon John Lewis, as well as the first Black President, Barack Obama. Additionally, the historic election of President Obama in 2008 was due at least in part to unprecedented Black voter participation.
However, securing Black American suffrage continues to face challenges. The 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, increasingly restrictive voting laws and their effect on Black voters has become a source of controversy.
The Voting Rights Portal highlights many of the National Archives holdings that relate to the long story of seeking equality in voting rights. Through this portal, users can explore the historic events, individuals, organizations, and the Federal government’s actions to both limit and expand access to the vote.