This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at Reconstruction, specifically the ratification of the 15th Amendment which took place 150 years ago this week. It was the third of three amendments added to the Constitution after the Civil War and it was specifically intended to protect African American voting rights. In these early years of Reconstruction, formerly enslaved people registered to vote, voted, and won election to office, including Congress. But just a few years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, southern whites, with the acquiescence of white northerners, dismantled the accomplishments of Reconstruction, including black political power, and re-imposed white supremacy.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the onset of the1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic and Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech against the Vietnam.
Feature Story: The Ratification of the 15th Amendment
On March 30, 1870 - 150 years ago this week - the US Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, certified that the required 3/4 of the states had ratified the 15th amendment to the Constitution and it was now in effect. This was the third of three amendments added to the Constitution in the wake of the Civil War. The 13th amendment abolished slavery. The 14th amendment defined US citizenship, established voting rights for African-Americans, and established the principle of equality before the law. The 15th amendment was intended to strengthen the right of African-Americans to vote. It read: “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.”
For African Americans and their white Republican allies, the 15th amendment was hailed as a key achievement in reshaping the US political system into a multiracial democracy. As President Ulysses S. Grant put it, the 15th amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.”
Grant and his fellow Republicans were right in celebrating the revolutionary nature of the amendment, but some of them expressed an unfounded and naïve optimism about its ability to empower African Americans. They claimed that with the 14th and 15th Amendments in place, black Americans no longer needed federal protection from vengeful white southerners who bitterly resented the end of slavery and black freedom and equality.
Rep. James Garfield of Ohio, the Speaker of the House and future president, said the 15th Amendment “confers upon the African race the care of its own destiny. It places their fortunes in their own hands.” The message was clear: African Americans now had everything they needed to succeed. And if they failed to secure their place in American life then it was their own fault.
Well, let’s hold that thought for a moment. We’ll return to it shortly.
For now, let’s consider what had already happened in the years leading up to the ratification of the 15th amendment. First, African Americans had already gained the right to vote in 1867 under a Civil Rights Act passed by Congress. And this right was then made permanent in 1868 under the 14th Amendment.
Immediately, formerly enslaved people seized this new freedom. Some 700,000 African-Americans registered to vote, nearly all of them as members of the Republican party - the party of Lincoln, emancipation, and now civil rights.
And the results were remarkable: More than six hundred formerly enslaved men won seats in state legislatures and to other state and local offices. Still hundreds more served in all manner of posts, from register of deeds to justice of the peace. Some even went to Congress. Between 1869 and 1901 twenty-two African Americans would serve in the U