Skip to Main Content

Fifteenth Amendment: About

Amendment XV: 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

Why is the Fifteenth Amendment Important?

Added to the Constitution in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was the final of the three constitutional amendments enacted during Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War. While the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment barred states from denying “equal protection of the laws,” the Fifteenth Amendment established that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race. Though its express terms prohibit all racial discrimination in voting qualifications, the Amendment was aimed at ensuring the enfranchisement of African-Americans. Section 2 of this short but momentous Amendment also gave Congress the power to enact legislation to enforce the right against race-based denials of the vote. The constitutional meaning of the Civil War was reflected in these three amendments; when the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, it represented the principle that African-American citizens—many of them former slaves—were now entitled to political equality. 

Yet the most significant fact about the Fifteenth Amendment in American history is that it was essentially ignored and circumvented for nearly a century. This history illustrates that constitutional rights can be little more than words on paper unless institutions exist with the power to make sure those rights are actually enforced. For the first twenty to thirty years after the Amendment was adopted, black adult men (women were generally not permitted to vote at this time) were indeed permitted to vote—and did so in large numbers. Nearly 2,000 African-Americans were elected to public offices during this period. But starting in 1890, Southern states adopted an array of laws that made it extremely difficult for African-Americans (and many poor whites) to vote. This was the start of what is known as the era of disenfranchisement, and it lasted all the way up until 1965. These laws required people to demonstrate literacy, or prove their good character, or pay certain voting taxes, or overcome other hurdles, before they were permitted to vote. As a result of these laws, African-American voting in the South was kept at extremely low levels from 1890 to 1965, despite the Fifteenth Amendment. Continue reading from National Constitution Center

How the Fifteenth Amendment is Interpreted Today

In modern constitutional law, the Fifteenth Amendment plays a minor role. The reason is that other, broader sources of law have emerged to protect the right to vote. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to vote as a general matter, while the Fifteenth Amendment is more limited to protecting against only race-based denials of the right to vote. In addition, federal statutes, such as the VRA and others, now exist to protect the right to vote as well. When cases involving issues of race and the vote are brought today, they will typically be brought simultaneously under the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the VRA.

If a law explicitly imposes different rules by race for access to the ballot, there is little doubt the courts today would hold such a law to violate the Fifteenth Amendment. The one case like this in recent decades came from Hawaii, where a law permitted only Native Hawaiians,  not all Hawaiians, to vote for certain officials. The Supreme Court concluded that a law limiting who could vote based on their ancestry was equivalent to a law that limited the vote based on race and that Hawaii’s law therefore violated the Fifteenth Amendment. Rice v. Cayetano (2000). But if a voting law does not impose different rules by race, and is challenged as nonetheless racially discriminatory, the Court has concluded that the challenger must show that the law is based on a racially-discriminatory purpose before the Fifteenth Amendment is violated. Mobile v. Bolden (1980).  Continue reading from National Constitution Center

Link to The Second Founding by Eric Foner in the catalog
Link to On Account of Race by Lawrence Goldstone in the catalog
Link to Fighting Chance by Faye Dudden in the catalog
Link to Reconstruction edited by Brooks Simpson in the catalog
Link to The Voting Rights War: The NAACP and the Ongoing Struggle for Justice by Gloria J Browne-Marshall in the catalog
Link to The First Reconstruction: Black politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War by Van Gosse in the catalog

Return to The American Government Resource Guide Series