In a fairly recent political science class, a student asked me why the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not protect citizens from the slew of recent state Republican Party-based legislation that blatantly discriminated against Black and Brown citizens, as White politicians exhibited their growing fear of being outvoted in the near future by non-white majorities.
Trying to give a thoughtful and meaningful answer, I said this: The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the last of the three Radical Reconstruction additions to the U.S. Constitution aimed at protecting the integration of former slaves into the regular American system (the other two were of course the 13th, which ended slavery, and the 14th which made Black folk citizens).
The 15th amendment was very short—in fact, the shortest of the three. In only two sections, the amendment simply said, “ 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” (Section One), and “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” (Section 2).
In practice, the 15th amendment was basically ignored for almost 100 years, as states easily enacted laws that showed the amendment no respect. The federal court rarely cited the amendment in any decision, generally using the 14th amendment instead (especially the Due Process clause). Part of the problem with the 15th amendment was that it did not provide any action phase to its stipulation, nor any procedure to quantify when and how to determine whether a law discriminated against Black citizens voting. In Giles v. Harris (1903), for example, the Supreme Court stated that the 15th amendment did not provide the court with the power to order Southern states to comply with it. And later that year, in James v. Bowman (1903), the Court concluded that the 15th Amendment did not give Congress the power to punish private individuals (like the KKK) who did things to prevent African-Americans from voting.
Probably the most famous case of finally using the amendment for the benefit of Black citizens was Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960). There the Supreme Court ruled that Tuskegee, Ala., had violated the Fifteenth Amendment when it illegally re-drew the city’s boundaries from a basic square to an “uncouth, virtually unrecognizable twenty-eight-sided figure” that placed the residences of virtually the entire Black population outside the city’s boundaries so they couldn’t vote in city elections. Tuskegee then simply figured out another way to accomplish the same thing.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was the law that gave teeth to the 15th amendment. It provided a viable mechanism through which the federal government could step in and put a direct halt to clearly discriminatory state laws passed to hinder Black people voting. That law, after over 40 years of real impact, was gutted by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder case that ruled that states no longer had to submit new voting procedures to the federal government for approval. The Court said that states were no longer engaging in direct exclusions of Black voting.
The new hope for the future, I said in conclusion, is the new legislation pending before Congress now ( particularly the U.S. Senate—the House has already passed both pieces of legislation) called H.R. 1 (the For the People Act) and H.R. 4 (the John Lewis Voting Rights Act). Those pieces of legislation would guarantee the rights the 15th amendment tried to ensure.
Time will tell, very soon, whether the Democrats can bend the Senate forward to pass that needed legislation. Otherwise, the 15th amendment will be a dead letter as part of the U.S. Constitution.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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