If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The 15th Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted voting rights to all U.S. citizens, regardless of race or previous servitude. However, Southern states used tactics like poll taxes and grandfather clauses to prevent African Americans from voting. The Supreme Court upheld these practices until the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Created by Aspen Institute.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute and we're here with our third lesson on the Reconstruction Amendments and I'm with Jeffrey Rosen the CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia so now we get to the Fifteenth Amendment first let's put it on the timeline when did it happen passed by Congress February 26 1869 and ratified February 3rd 1870 and we call these a Reconstruction Amendments but let's get the whole timeline straight reconstruction basically begins with the end of the Civil War in April 1865 and pretty much ends with the end of Ulysses us grants presidency at the beginning of 1877 when Ruth of Hayes takes over it's that about right that's exactly right the compromise of 1876 which gives he's the presidency and the deal is that the southern democrats agreed to support Hayes in exchange for the end of reconstruction so reconstruction was a big broad thing that helped change the way the laws were applied in the south but at the core were these three amendments right they are the mark that was left in the Constitution constitutionalizing the vision of the Reconstruction Republicans so let's get to the 15th what does it say it says 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 in other words freed slaves could vote in theory so what well first of all why was it necessary wasn't that an obvious thing it was necessary because the 14th amendment which we talked about last time only protected civil rights not political rights this was a distinction that was important to the Reconstruction Republicans they thought that although a citizen of Maryland could go to Virginia and make contracts the sames Maryland citizen couldn't go to Virginia and vote in Virginia elections or on Virginia juries and therefore all section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment also seems to anticipate that southern states might deny African Americans the right to vote but reduce their apportionment in Congress accordingly that's why even though the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equality of civil rights it took the Fifteenth Amendment to guarantee the quality of the political right of voting now you said in theory it allowed freed slaves about why just in theory because soon after the 15th members past southern states did their darndest to disenfranchise African Americans by ruses and others stratagems they passed grandfather clauses that prohibited people from voting if they hadn't been registered before the Civil War they passed poll taxes that made it impossible for African Americans to afford to cast a vote and the Supreme Court in a series of decisions some of them written by liberal heroes like justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld these appalling stratagems so in practice African Americans could not meaningfully vote in many southern states until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s it really took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meaningfully to give African Americans the right to vote that they were promised more than a century earlier under what ground did Oliver Wendell Holmes and others sort of overturn what is the clear intent of this amendment well it was not it was an amazing decision it was called Giles the Giles decision and Holmes basically said only formal forms of disenfranchisement sir prohibited prohibited by the amendments ruses that have the effect of disenfranchisement aren't covered and then he said basically if the southerners are perpetrating a fraud on African American citizens the court can't be a party to the fraud by pursuing to strike it down it was really striking another time when was that decision that was soon after it was in 1870 soon after that so pretty much these reconstruct or at least the Fifteenth Amendment is undermined or at least made irrelevant within ten years of passage this was the time of Jim Crow beginning to rise up it was the time that the court upheld a railroad segregation in Plessy versus Ferguson it's such a tragic story it was it was also a time when the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which had been passed to guarantee the quality in accommodations and access to public places so you have this shining promise of Reconstruction and botted in these amendments but very quickly southern states act to deny the promise with their laws and the Supreme Court just repeatedly and relentlessly sides with the south and against the intention of the throughout the 1870s and it's not just the south now it's a Supreme Court as well throughout the 1870s you said Plessy vs. Ferguson that basically says what that's by 1890 and that says that railroad segregation where southern states are compelling railroad carriages to separate blacks and whites is perfectly consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment that there was a stirring dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan saying that the Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens Thurgood Marshall read Harlan's dissent before arguing Brown versus Board of Education and it wasn't until 1954 that the Supreme Court essentially overturns Plessy and recognizes that segregation is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment es2 the 1890s we pretty much have the undermining of at least the Fifteenth Amendment and somewhat the Equal Protection Clause and it's almost a hundred years how does it happen 100 years later we have the Voting Rights Act what else I suppose it really began after World War two when African Americans served with whites honorably in the war and Major League Baseball was integrated and public opinion about segregation began to change when the Roosevelt and Truman administration's argued against segregation and by the time the Court struck down school segregation in 1854 repudiating the doctrine of separate but equal public opinion was nationally against segregation 54% of the country opposed segregation in 1954 and explain what the phrase separate but equal how does that come about well it came about I suppose from Plessy versus Ferguson which recognized that you couldn't have completely unequal railroad carriages or facilities but said it was fine to separate blacks and whites because if anyone assumed that there was any intention to degrade african-americans that was just their construction you know as long as the railroad carriages were basically the same then there was no inequality Brown versus Board of Education repudiated that unconvincing ruse and recognized that both the purpose and effect of segregation was to stigmatize and degrade african-americans as inferior and less worthy than whites and so what we have are these three Reconstruction Amendments passed between 1865 and 1870 and they really come into full force exactly a century later with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the other civil rights acts of the 1960's is that about right that's exactly right and that reminds us that any notion we have that our rights come mostly from the Supreme Court is not consistent with history because although we thought a civil war and passed these three heroic constitutional amendments it wasn't until the people of the United States rose up in the civil rights movement to actually make these rights a reality thank you Jeffrey wasn't thank you