The Fifteenth Amendment: Part Four of a Four Part Series

The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 ignited the Black community and kicked off extensive celebration in the United States, with African Americans calling the historical moment, “this nation’s second birth” and a “greater revolution than that of 1776.”  It is recorded that seven thousand Black men and women marched down Broadway in New York City cheering the victory, with some ten thousand revelers in Baltimore taking part in a massive parade.

With this year’s Black History Month commemorating the Fifteenth Amendment, the 2020 election cycle is particularly poignant as a banner reminder that, although the Constitutionally enshrined provision awarded African Americans the right to vote, on a cold February day one hundred fifty years ago, it is today’s challenges to the voting rights of Black people and people of color that continue a legacy of racial inequality.  From photo ID requirements to intimidation at the polls, to registration restrictions and gerrymandering, states are still infringing on Black American’s right to vote, perpetuating a discrimination that has persisted since long before the landmark legislation was passed.

Following the approval of the Fifteenth Amendment, African Americans,  many of them former slaves, utilized their newly won freedom to vote by electing Black candidates.  Within the first month, on March 31, 1870, the first African American vote was cast in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, by Thomas Mundy Peterson. The son of an ex-slave, Lucy Green, Thomas Peterson was born in Metuchen, N.J. in 1824 and grew up to work as a handyman and janitor.  At the age of 46,  Peterson attended Perth Amboy’s local election as a member of the Republican Party,  casting his ballot in favor of revising an existing city charter, which made him the first African American to vote in any election in United States history. 

Additionally, Peterson also became the first Black person in Perth Amboy to serve on a jury, going further on and earning the distinction of being jointly appointed to make amendments to the very charter’s revisions he voted in favor of previously.  Perth Amboy later celebrated the honor of Perterson’s triumphant moment in American History by bestowing on him a gold medallion.

Over the course of the next one hundred and fifty years however, beginning during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many states constructed methods to circumvent the law and restrict the Black vote.  Instituting poll taxes and literacy tests became a few examples of legal obstructions hindering Black people in their abilities to participate in democracy.  Further complicating their efforts, intimidation and violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan greatly diminished voting turnout among Blacks. In stark contrast to the wave of Black candidates elected to offices following February 1870, the period from 1901 to 1928 saw zero Black members elected to Congress.

In America today, some researchers still identify Jim Crow-era laws have remained in their place, such as laws barring people from voting if they have been previously convicted of certain crimes.  Studies have shown time and time again, these laws have been engineered to essentially silence the voices of millions of Black men and women across the country.

In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a decades-old standard coverage formula which names jurisdictions that must pass federal scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act, referred to as “preclearance,” in order to pass any new elections or voting laws, since then, over 1200 polling places have been shuttered, several states have legally purged voter lists, and countless congressional and legislative districts legally and strategically gerrymander regions that dilute the voting power of communities of color.  From that Supreme Court Decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented against the apparent contradiction of reasoning, writing, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

For one hundred and fifty years since the Fifteenth Amendment, America remains racially divided, and that is distinctly felt resonating in terms of the ability to freely cast a vote. That will not end with the conclusion of Black History Month.  The accomplishments of notable African Americans highlighted in this series reminds us to never forget those who fought, bled, and died for everyone’s right to vote. As the 2020 election year commences, preserving your voter registration and protecting the voter registrations of your neighbors and those of your loved ones requires vigilance and a communal effort.  We are all Americans and all of our voices deserve to be heard.