Does an amendment give you the right to vote?

By Jordan Grant
A line of people wait outside the Baltimore branch of the NAACP in 1843

In 2020, the Fifteenth Amendment—the first voting rights amendment added to the U.S. Constitution—celebrates its 150th anniversary. You’ve likely heard, perhaps on the news or in the classroom, that the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave or granted African American men the right to vote. It’s a turn of phrase that works as a shorthand.

Unfortunately, it’s also a bit misleading.

Colorful lithograph showing historical scenes connected to the 15th Amendment
Commemorations and celebrations of the Fifteenth Amendment are as old as the amendment itself. In 1870, African Americans nationwide celebrated the amendment’s ratification through parades and other public celebrations. The central panel on this lithograph depicts one of the largest events—a parade in Baltimore, Maryland. More than 20,000 people gathered to watch as African American military units, unions, and fraternal orders marched down the city’s streets.

As written, the Fifteenth Amendment does not explicitly grant anyone the right to vote. Instead, it prohibits federal and state governments from placing restrictions on voting based on three criteria: race, color, and previous condition of servitude. The entire amendment is two sentences long:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation

Later voting rights amendments to the U.S. Constitution—especially the Nineteenth and Twenty-Sixth Amendments—copied the Fifteenth’s structure and its wording, declaring that the right to vote “shall not be denied” on account of sex or age, respectively. These amendments removed important barriers to suffrage, but they stopped short of affirming that all Americans have a constitutional right to vote. Even today, U.S. states have incredible power over who is allowed to participate in elections.

But the problems with this shorthand—saying the amendment gave African Americans the vote—go deeper than the level of language. Perhaps most importantly, this phrasing obscures what happened after the Constitution was amended. For a brief time after its ratification in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment worked as intended, sweeping away laws and constitutional provisions that had prevented African American men from voting. However, by the end of the 1800s, state governments throughout the South had adopted new laws and regulations that did not directly reference race or color but still stripped African American men of their access to direct participation in the nation’s political life. Literacy tests, poll taxes, elaborate registration systems, intimidation, and violence—including violent assaults and lynchingswere all used to silence African American voters and exclude them from the polls.

Illustration showing African American men standing outside the closed door of a polling place
Americans in the 1800s understood the limitations of the Fifteenth Amendment. This 1874 cartoon in “Harper’s Weekly” drove home the idea that white Americans could use violence and intimidation to continue disenfranchising African American men, despite the amendment’s guarantees. Courtesy of Library of Congress

African Americans and their allies fought against these restrictions and other injustices, but it took decades of protesting, lobbying, organizing, and legal challenges—forms of political activism that went beyond the ballot—as well as the active intervention of the federal government to ensure that the Fifteenth Amendment could live up to its revolutionary potential. Ultimately, the full promise of the Fifteenth Amendment was not realized until the 1960s, almost a century after it was added to the U.S. Constitution.

A line of people stand outside the NAACP office in Baltimore, waiting to register to vote
On the cover of this 1943 pamphlet created by the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a line of voters wait in line to register to vote.

In 2020, the Fifteenth Amendment turns 150. To mark the anniversary, the museum’s blog is publishing a series that reexamines the amendment, exploring its origins, its ratification, and its many legacies for the nation.

Jordan Grant is a Digital Experience specialist in the Office of Audience Engagement.