On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The third and final amendment of the Reconstruction Amendments–enacted in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to help rebuild the Union and establish a freer society unbound from slavery–prohibits states and the federal government from withholding a citizen’s right to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” After Iowa ratified the amendment on February 3–becoming the 28th state to do so and fulfilling the three-fourths threshold for amendment ratification–celebrations sprung out across the country.
At the time, President Ulysses S. Grant claimed that the passage of the Fifthteenth Amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event” in the nation’s history. Many other Republicans believed that the amendment would finally guarantee black Americans equal rights under the law. Future president James A. Garfield even declared that the amendment would ensure black Americans control over their collective well-being. Garfield proclaimed, “It places their fortunes in their own hands.”
Nevertheless, because the federal government failed to strongly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment at the state level after the Reconstruction Era, southern states used alternative methods to restrict the right to vote for black Americans. For many decades after the ratification of the amendment, the state of Mississippi became one of the more deliberate enablers of disenfranchisement methods. By 1875, only five years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, members of the Democratic Party in the state developed what came to be known as the Mississippi Plan–a series of measures used to suppress the black vote and keep their party in power. Eventually, these measures culminated in the passage of a new state constitution in 1890, which explicitly disenfranchised black voters through the implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Disenfranchisement in Mississippi and other Southern states–enforced using voter registration measures like poll taxes as well as violent intimidation tactics organized by racist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan–persisted throughout the late 1800s and well into the 20th century. However, by the mid-1950s, events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emergence of grassroot civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped spur rejuvenated calls for actions to protect the rights and well-being of African-Americans across the country.
The Mississippi State Industrial Union Council, a state affiliate of the CIO, was just one of many grassroots organizations in the South that worked to combat racial discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement. As illustrated in the CIO handout titled “Your November Vote Could Be Your Last,” the council worked diligently during the 1950s to oppose disenfranchisement measures supported by their state government. This advertisement was published and distributed in 1954 to encourage eligible voters to vote against a proposed amendment that, according to the opposition, was specifically designed to prohibit African-Americans from voting.
As written, the “Concurrent Resolution to Amend Section 244 of the [Mississippi] Constitution” would, among other stipulations, require prospective voters to “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of this state and give a reasonable interpretation thereof to the county registrar.” The state CIO council and other regional civil rights groups believed that the amendment targeted black voters in several different ways. Not only did the amendment place a substantial heavier burden on prospective black voters, as only about five percent were already registered as opposed to over 60 percent of white voters, but required them to pass an arbitrary test that could be extremely difficult for an electorate that received about 70 percent less educational funding compared to whites.
Largely due to these purposeful restrictions, as well as the fact that 95 percent of Mississippi’s eligible voters in 1954 were white, the state amendment passed easily that November. Black voters in Mississippi–along with black voters across the South–would have to wait another 11 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to formally abolish literacy tests for voting across the country.
To learn more about the history and impact of voter disenfranchisement, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.
David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.