How did African-Americans win the right to vote?

A viewer asked this question on 8/9/2000:

What did African Americans have to do in order to win the rights to vote?

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/9/2000:

Well, that requires a survey of most of the history of the United States. So I'll outline it and you can ask a follow-up about the parts you're interested in.

In 1789, African-Americans were defined in the Constitution as 3/5 of a person for counting representation, and could not vote at all. (Constitution's Article 1, section 2, and elsewhere)

In 1865, following the Civil War, African-Americans were given the right to vote and the "3/5ths clause" was rescinded. (14th and 15th Amendment). The clause relevant to your question is the 15th Amendment, article 1: "The right... to vote shall not be denied or abridged... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." (the "previous condition of servitude" meant that states couldn't deny the right to vote to those who had been slaves).

For 90 years thereafter, states did all sorts of things to abridge the right to vote for African-Americans. The main means were seemingly "objective" criteria like "literacy laws," which required that a person be able to read before they could register to vote. Since most African-Americans at the time were illiterate, that effectively prevented their voting. There were many cases before the Supreme Court, mostly in southern states, in which means of blocking the vote were removed.

The real change came during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when the last of the racial restrictions were finally removed. Prior to the 1960s, the Supreme Court had determined that schools could be "separate but equal," which meant there were separate schools for African-Americans. During the 1960s, the Supreme Court enforced the desegregation of the schools on the grounds that "separate is inherently unequal."

Legally speaking, the right to vote came with the 15th amendment. But socially speaking, it took the Civil Rights movement to make it a reality.

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/9/2000:

First, they had to win the civil war. After that, the 15th amendment was passed guaranteeing the right to vote to persons regardless of race.

As a matter of fact, right after the civil war, blacks were able to vote in such large numbers that they elected what is still a record of black representatives at the federal, state and local levels.

However, it was not to last. White Democrats in the south used violence as a tactic to scare blacks (and white Republicans) away from the polling places. When the Federal government did nothing to stop the violence, Whites took control and passed laws designed to prevent blacks from voting.

The first main tactic was the literacy test. Although it sounds fair to ensure you could read before you could vote, there was a catch. If your grandfather voted, you were allowed an exemption! Naturally, no black person's grandfather had voted, so they had to take the test. The test was deliberately impossible so that even in the 20th century, many black Ph.D. failed it.

Second was the poll tax. States passed laws requiring that people pay money before they could vote. This shut out blacks and many poor whites. As a result, the U.S. Constitution was later amended to prevent the use of poll taxes.

In addition, registration was difficult. The registry office was generally only open during business hours, and was, of course, closed for lunch. It was difficult for working people to register. It still is in many places, which gave rise to the Federal "Motor Voter" law which requires all states to allow people to register to vote at DMV offices.

As a result, few blacks in the south voted between 1870 and 1965. This was changed primarily as the result of Federal legislation in 1963 and 1964 insuring the right of blacks to vote, and efforts by the Johnson administration to enforce voting rights in the south. As a result, southern blacks vote overwhelmingly Democrat to this day.

A viewer asked this question on 8/10/2000:

What other issues or goals besides educational and voting rights that African Americans had to fight for and what did they do to achieve them

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/10/2000:

One good example is the history of Blacks in the American military.

Blacks fought on both sides of the American Revolutionary war, and many Blacks who fought for the British later escaped to Canada. However, Blacks who fought for the Colonies were generally ignored after the war. As such, blacks were refused entry into military service thereafter.

It was not until the middle of the Civil War in 1863 that Blacks were once again allowed to join the U.S. Army. However, most Blacks at that time lived as slaves and still were not allowed to fight, especially for the Confederacy (many Blacks who enlisted in the Confederacy often deserted the minute they received a uniform and a gun). Moreover, only 1% of the population of the Union was Black.

That didn't stop the Blacks from trying to organize. Many prominent abolitionists and Republicans forced the Army to accept Black troops in 1863, and they served with distinction in many battles - even though they faced massacre at worst and being sold back into slavery if captured at best. By the end of the Civil War, 10% of combat troops and a large number of support personnel were Black.

Despite their success, Blacks were allowed to enlist, but were not allowed to serve combat duty. They had to be content serving in support units, which were no safer and had less responsibility.

However, by World War II, some Blacks had finally made it into the officer ranks, and pressure on the federal government increased to allow them to go into combat. As a result, by the end of World War II, Blacks were on the front lines.

However, there was a catch. Even as late as World War II, army units were completely segregated. Blacks often had white officers, but Black troops did not serve with White troops.

This all changed in about 1947 when President Truman used his power as commander-in-chief to desegregate the army. The decision was, in its time, as controversial as today's decision to let gays serve in the military. The political backlash was severe and immediate - in a United States where many communities and government services were segregated, southern Democrats held their own convention and put forward their own candidate for President in 1948. As most blacks couldn't yet vote, the "Dixiecrats" won most of the southern states, but couldn't prevent Truman from being elected.

Since 1947, in most branches of the military, blacks have had equal, or in cases superior (because of their numbers) access to promotion opportunities. Unlike politics and business, blacks in the military have been given an opportunity to show exactly what they can accomplish when they are given the chance.

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