FACT CHECK: When Did Black People Get The Right To Vote?

David Sivak | Fact Check Editor

NBC News reporter Geoff Bennett recently tweeted about a comment President Donald Trump made during his campaign-style rally in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Trump, in Nashville, says African Americans have blindly voted for Democrats ‘for over a hundred years.’ If only black folks had the right to vote for that long …” he lamented.

His tweet prompted emphatic debate on Twitter.

Some users said that Bennett was wrong and that the 15th Amendment granted black people the right to vote back in 1870.

“They’ve had the *right* to vote for 150 years,” said one user.

Others defended Bennett, insisting that it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that most blacks could vote.

“Umm, no,” replied another user. “Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century.”

The history of black suffrage is more complicated than one or two acts of Congress, so we decided to explore the topic, asking the question: Did black people get the right to vote after the Civil War?

Verdict: True

The end of the Civil War brought about suffrage for black males in the U.S., and while the Union armies occupied the South, blacks meaningfully participated in Southern politics. But this victory was short-lived, and after a decade of military rule, Union armies withdrew, allowing Southern states to throw up barriers to voting including poll taxes and literacy tests.

By the turn of the century, virtually no blacks in the South could vote. It wouldn’t be until the civil rights movement got underway that voting rights would be restored.

States in the North, while more progressive, had a mixed record on suffrage.

Fact Check:

With the end of the Civil War in 1865, states ratified the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery in the U.S.

The North debated how to go about readmitting Confederate states to the Union, and by 1867, Congress began the process of Radical Reconstruction, a plan by Republicans to divide the South into five military districts governed by the Union armies.

To be readmitted, Southern states had to ratify the 14th Amendment, granting blacks citizenship and equal protection under the law, and draft new constitutions that established universal male suffrage. Within a year, the new governments had registered more than 700,000 black men to vote (compared to 660,000 whites).

During the Reconstruction period, 16 black men served in Congress and about 2,000 held public office at the state and local level. For roughly a decade from 1867 to 1877, black people meaningfully participated in Southern politics.

All states had rejoined the Union by 1870, but Southern whites were viscerally opposed to voting rights for blacks; the era was marked by riots, massacres and other mass violence. Terrorist organizations like the Klu Klux Klan intimidated black people to keep them away from the polls.

“I heard men proclaim that the order had been issued to shoot any colored man who voted for the reform ticket,” one witness said, according to congressional testimony from 1872. “Undoubtedly, it was believed by the colored people.”

Ahead of the 1868 presidential election, over 2,000 people were killed or injured in Louisiana. Voting places were rife with corruption, and various tactics were employed to keep blacks from having a vote, including harassment by election officials, vote tampering and more.

Congress, seeing that Southern whites could not be trusted to guarantee equal rights for black people, passed the 15th Amendment in 1869. Ratified a year later, the amendment allowed the Republican Party to shore up the only constituencies available to it in the South – freed slaves and non-plantation whites – and to advance the cause of abolitionists in the party.

States were now prohibited from discriminating against the voting rights of citizens “on account of race, color, or prior condition of servitude.”

An earlier version of the amendment had been far more expansive, barring discrimination based on “race, color, nativity, property, education, or religious beliefs,” but the language was parred down by moderates in Congress.

“In a very complicated jockeying that came about in conference committee, what emerged was a very narrow version of the 15th Amendment,” historian Alex Keyssar, author of the book “The Right To Vote,” told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And the fact that it was narrow meant that it could be circumvented.”

As the Union armies withdrew from the South in the 1870s, Southern whites quickly sought to establish political white supremacy. States put in place poll taxes, literacy tests and other voting requirements.

“The Southern states, one by one, passed these non-racial laws which had the effect and the purpose of eliminating the black vote,” historian Eric Foner, author of the book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” told TheDCNF.

The Democratic Party, which wielded incredible power in the South, instituted the “white primary,” barring blacks from nominating candidates. “Since nomination by the Democratic party was tantamount to election, debarment from the nominating process was the equivalent of disfranchisement,” reads a 1968 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

By 1905, black people weren’t allowed to vote anywhere in the South.

The 14th and 15th Amendments granted black male suffrage in the North, but only 9 percent of black people lived outside of the South in 1870, meaning most would not secure the right to vote until the civil rights era. As late as 1940, only 3 percent of blacks were registered to vote in the South.

Voting rights hadn’t always been determined by race.

When the Constitution was adopted in 1788, voting was generally limited to property owners, meaning that nearly all people – black and white – were disenfranchised. Over the coming decades, property qualifications were dropped in many states, granting working class and poor Americans the right to vote for the first time.

But the suffrage movement largely benefitted whites. New York removed property requirements in 1822, for example, but left a requirement in place for blacks. In 1840, less than 300 of the nearly 30,000 black men in New York were eligible to vote.

“What you might say is that in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, the basis of voting – apart from gender, because women couldn’t vote anywhere – the basis of voting shifts from property to race,” said Foner.

Other states that allowed free black men to vote, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, would eventually amend their constitutions to explicitly exclude blacks. As the country expanded westward, new states like Ohio would bar black people from voting as well.

“By the 1830s, just about all white men could vote whether they owned property or not. But in that very movement, they’re taking away the right to vote from black men,” Foner told TheDCNF.

Only five states in New England allowed freed blacks to vote on the eve of the Civil War.

That all changed after the war ended. With newfound freedoms, blacks began migrating North and West. The adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granted women, black and white, the right to vote.

But it wasn’t until the 1940s that meaningful change came to the South. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that white primaries were unconstitutional. The ruling, combined with efforts to register black voters by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led voter registration among blacks to rise to 12 percent by 1947 and 25 percent in 1956.

“By the 1950s, in some Southern states like Virginia, there were a lot of black men finally being able to vote, but certainly in the Deep South, forget it,” said Foner.

The percentage stood at 43 percent by 1964, the same year that states ratified the 24th Amendment, which banned poll taxes for federal elections.

Congress passed a series of civil rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s. Chief among them, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited literacy tests, introduced greater federal oversight of elections and directed the Justice Department to challenge the legality of state and local poll taxes in court.

The Supreme Court ruled poll taxes to be unconstitutional in 1966. “Wealth, like race, creed, or color, is not germane to one’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process,” Justice William Douglas wrote in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.

Although civil rights abuses would continue in the form of gerrymandering, at-large voting and other attempts to dilute the power of the black vote, nearly a million black people registered to vote within just a few years. Voter registration for blacks in Mississippi went from under 10 percent in 1964 to almost 60 percent by 1968.

Today, black participation in presidential elections hovers around 60 percent. The highest turnout on record was the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.

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David Sivak

Fact Check Editor
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