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When Did African Americans Actually Get the Right to Vote?

January 29, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

The 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote under the law, but exercising that right became another challenge.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the United States found itself in uncharted territory. With the Confederacy’s defeat, some 4 million enslaved black men, women and children had been granted their freedom, an emancipation that would be formalized with passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

For black Americans, gaining the full rights of citizenship—and especially the right to vote—was central to securing true freedom and self-determination. “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot,” Frederick Douglass famously said in May 1865, a month after the Union victory at Appomattox.

Presidential Reconstruction & Black Codes

A 1867 political cartoon depicting an African American man casting his ballot during the Georgetown elections as Andrew Johnson and others look on angrily.

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, the task of reconstructing the Union fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. A Tennessee-born Unionist, Johnson believed strongly in state’s rights, and showed great leniency toward white Southerners in his Reconstruction policy. He required the former Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment and pledge loyalty to the Union, but otherwise granted them free rein in reestablishing their post-war governments.

As a result, in 1865-66, most Southern state legislatures enacted restrictive laws known as black codes, which strictly governed black citizens’ behaviors and denied them suffrage and other rights.

Radical Republicans in Congress were outraged, arguing that the black codes went a long way toward reestablishing slavery in all but name. Early in 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which aimed to build on the 13th Amendment and give black Americans the rights of citizens. When Johnson vetoed the bill, on the basis of opposing federal action on behalf of former slaves, Congress overrode his veto, marking the first time in the nation’s history that major legislation became law over a presidential veto.

The 14th & 15th Amendments

With passage of a new Reconstruction Act (again over Johnson’s veto) in March 1867, the era of Radical, or Congressional, Reconstruction, began. Over the next decade, black Americans voted in huge numbers across the South, electing a total of 22 black men to serve in the U.S. Congress (two in the Senate) and helping to elect Johnson’s Republican …read more