“The Right of Citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude and that the Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
At the dawning of the 21st Century, the words of the 15th Amendment to our Nation’s Constitution remind us of one of the most precious gifts of liberty: to freely exercise your right to vote.
And yet, even the 15th Amendment—on its face—did not guarantee that the “right of citizens of the United States” to vote would not be denied as America emerged from the fog of civil war and into the new reality that those individuals once enslaved under the constitution were now entitled to exercise their rights as citizens under that same constitution.
It would not be long, however, before certain of the states, particularly in the south, responded to the demand of the 15th Amendment by devising a variety of tools to disenfranchise African American voters for reasons of “eligibility”. From literacy tests to pole taxes, from property ownership to oral and written examinations, States began to enact laws that ultimately “denied and abridged” African Americans their right to vote.
Moreover, when intimidation at the ballot box failed to curb the thirst for full access to the rights guaranteed by the Framers of the Constitution, more insidious and violent means such as lynchings, fire bombs and murder were used to “remind the Negro of his place” in American society.
In our society, all rights are ultimately protected by the ballot box, not the sword.
By virtue of the efforts to “legally” circumvent the dictates of the 15th Amendment as well as the escalation in violence against African Americans in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Selma and Montgomery Alabama the promise of the Constitution for African Americans and many other minorities—full and equal political rights—was like a munificent bequest from a pauper’s estate until the passage of the single most important piece of civil rights legislation in American history: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Both Democrats and Republicans were moved to respond to President Johnson’s voting initiative when he declared in his State of the Union Address “we shall overcome”. With the efforts of individuals like Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, and Congressman John Lewis laying the foundation for what would become an increasingly important political movement, Congress took up an historic challenge to end the “blight of racial discrimination in voting…[which had] infected the electoral process in parts of our county for nearly a century” under the leadership of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Il).
So it is chilling, to say the least, to witness 48 years later the Supreme Court effectively gut the Voting Rights Act.
The Act’s remedial structure is Section 5 which places a federal “pre-clearance” barrier against the adoption of any new voting practice or procedure by covered states and localities whose purpose or effect is to discriminate against minority voters. For over 40 years thereafter, the federal courts, and the Department of Justice worked hand-in-hand to make this promise of Section 5 a very potent reality.