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The History of Black Americans' Right to Vote

When did Black Americans get the right to vote? This timeline will break down some of the historic moments that led to Black suffrage in the United States, including methods of voter disenfranchisement that still persist today.

1865: After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, reconstructing the Union fell to Andrew Johnson. Johnson required the former Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment and pledge loyalty to the Union, but otherwise states were free to establish their own post-Civil War governments.

As a result, most Southern states enacted restrictive laws known as Black codes, which strictly governed Black Americans’ behaviors and denied them voting rights.

1868: Ratified in 1868, the 14th Amendment promised citizenship to all who are “born or naturalized” in the U.S., including those who were formerly enslaved. This amendment guaranteed all Americans “equal protection of the laws.”

1870: In 1870, Congress passed the last of the three “Reconstruction Amendments.” The 15th Amendment stated that voting rights could not be “denied or abridged” by the U.S. because of someone’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite these protections, Black voters and Black officials alike faced constant intimidation from white supremacist groups.

States were able to determine the specific qualifications for voting, a way for many southern states to disenfranchise Black voters while technically abiding by the 15th Amendment. Literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory practices were used to restrict voting rights for decades following Reconstruction.

As a result, the Black codes of 1865 were effectively reestablished under a new name: Jim Crow laws, a form of segregation that would persist for nearly a century.

1964 - 1966: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in schools and other public places, but otherwise did little to support voting rights.

In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery marches led by civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis emphasized the need for voting rights free of discrimination. Later that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, which banned the use of literacy tests.

In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes were unconstitutional for state and local elections. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, eliminated the use of poll taxes for federal elections. With this, literacy tests and poll taxes were officially deemed unconstitutional for determining a person’s right to vote.

2012: For the first time in history, the turnout of Black voters exceeded the number of white voters in 2012.

2013: The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which would have required states with a history of voter discrimination to seek approval before changing their election laws. This provision in the Shelby v. Holder case, if it were implemented, would have built in protections for the leaps and strides our country had made in regard to voting rights since 1966.

However, since the Court struck down this provision, a number of states passed new restrictions on voting, including limiting early voting and requiring voters to show photo ID.

Today: Voter ID laws, early voting cuts and felony disenfranchisement are just a few examples of how voter suppression persists today.

Although our country has come a long way since the Black codes of 1865, these forms of disenfranchisement are making it harder and harder for all Americans to cast their votes and make their voices heard.

Curious about voter suppression that still persists today? We recommend reading this article that covers some of the most widely used methods of voter suppression across the country.


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