Column: We must protect voting rights

Liette Gidlow

At a time when political developments seem to have lost the ability to shock, many gasped at Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s 2011 remarks, reported by CNN, that getting rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th Amendment would “eliminate many problems.” But Moore is hardly the first to indicate such distaste. And Alabama’s black voters responded with a shock of their own, turning out at record levels for an off-cycle election and delivering a win to Moore’s opponent.

The amendments “beyond the 10th” that bothered Moore and his ideological forebears the most are the amendments that conferred political rights on African-Americans and women. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, ended slavery. The 14th Amendment declared that blacks, whether formerly enslaved or formerly free, were citizens and that all citizens enjoyed “equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment extended voting rights to African-American men, that they might use the ballot to ward off further abuse. Together, these amendments constituted the most basic terms of the new contract that stitched back together a Union of the states that seceded with the states that stayed, and by the end of 1870, 10 Confederate states embraced these terms. Together with the 19th Amendment, these amendments extended democratic rights to the two largest segments of the American population to whom they had been denied.

But the ink on these amendments had hardly dried when some critics began to assert that granting voting rights to African-American men had been a mistake. Black men turned out to vote at incredible rates for decades, their turnout at times topping 90 percent. In response, white supremacists repeatedly attempted in the 1900s and 1910s to repeal the 14th and 15th Amendments or argued that, given the 10th Amendment’s reserve of unenumerated rights to the states, that the amendments had never been legal to begin with. In 1904, the House of Representatives engaged in a long-running debate over whether the 14th and 15th Amendments should be repealed. In 1911, southern legislators called for a plebiscite on the matter. And in 1916, a Mississippi congressman asked the Justice Department to bring a court case that would test whether the amendments were legal. These efforts all failed, but the sentiment behind them — that black enfranchisement was a mistake — justified the poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence that dropped black turnout to near zero by the early 20th century.

Nor was this viewpoint confined to the South. New York, in fact, did rescind its ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 when State Sen. William “Boss” Tweed took advantage of new Democratic majorities in both houses in Albany to reduce the voting strength of Republicans by reducing the number of black voters. Even 40 years after ratification, the question of black voting rights was so unsettled that a leading African-American newspaper in New York City characterized the repeal efforts as a “running agitation.”

It took a shockingly long time for these amendments to win approval in all the states in existence at the time their ratification campaigns succeeded. Kentucky became the last to approve 14th Amendment in 1976. Mississippi approved the woman suffrage amendment in 1984. Tennessee voted to back the 15th Amendment — in 1997. And Mississippi finally got around to disavowing slavery — in 2013. But the disagreement over the legitimacy of voting by African-Americans continues to this day. In Alabama last month, despite a push since 2011 to restrict access to the ballot by tightening voter ID laws and closing polling places, black turnout rates exceeded those of whites. And it’s no wonder. African-American voters have heard these threats before, and know the consequences of turning back the clock.

Liette Gidlow is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University.