In 1870 the Federal Government ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, declaring that for all citizens of this country the right “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.” Initially, under Reconstruction (Federal Occupation of the South), freed blacks voted and were even elected to serve in State offices and legislatures. After the Federal Government abandoned Reconstruction in 1876 and left the blacks to their fate, Southern States began to figure out ways to circumvent the 15th Amendment. Poll taxes, property-holding requirements, literacy tests (which many Southern whites couldn’t themselves pass) were some of the main ways to keep blacks from voting. Famously, Mississippi enacted the first “grandfather clause”: if your grandfather had voted before the Civil War, you could vote. That effectively eliminated black participation at the polls. Might it be significant, in light of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Voting Rights Act, that Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in February of 2013, this year, 148 years too late?
But this sorry litany of discriminatory State legislation doesn’t even take into account the extra-legal factors, chiefly the KKK’s role in making the vote a dangerous proposition for blacks, lynching being the ultimate dissuader.
The 15th Amendment remained the law of the land, “a promise made, a debt unpaid”* to quote Robert Service or to use Langston Hughes’ words, “a dream deferred.”
Discrimination of all types, including voter intimidation, continued throughout the 20th century. During the “Roaring Twenties” membership in the Ku Klux Klan soared to 5,000,000 Americans. During the Great Depression black unemployment reached 50% nationwide and lynching of blacks doubled .
The 15th Amendment remained the law of the land, a legal contract, as Martin Luther King put it, that had not been honored by the Federal Government.
Finally, After World War II and its segregated military units, President Harry Truman integrated the U.S. Military. Shortly thereafter the Civil Rights Movement began. In the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after 95 years of neglect, the Federal Government finally backed up with force the promise it had made in 1870, that neither the U.S. nor “any state” could deny people of color the right to vote.
When the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, it violated the terms of its contract with the American people and broke the promise of the law of the land. In my humble opinion, the Roberts Court has thoroughly invalidated its right to decide on such matters. The reversal of the Voting Rights Act is in itself unconstitutional.
Will Southern States discriminate given the chance to once again? Yes, and amazingly they already have. See Mississippi’s abysmally tardy ratification of the 13th Amendment this year and the Texas Attorney General’s decision yesterday to create a new Voter ID law for his State.
Regardless of what the Robert’s Supreme Court might think, the Federal Government must still protect and defend the voting rights of minorities,
The 15th Amendment: it still is the law of the land!