Voting Rights – The Full Enfranchisement of African Americans

The Fifteenth Amendment

Many of us take our right to vote as a given, forgetting that some struggled to attain that right. This, the first of two posts exploring the work of two groups to gain full voting rights, will take a look at primary sources from the Library of Congress that document the long road toward the full enfranchisement of African Americans.

The original Constitution of the United States was nearly mute on voting rights, ceding them to the states to determine. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution confers voting rights on African Americans, declaring that “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.”

Article XV

However, many states got around that by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictive practices, sometimes known as “Jim Crow” laws. Find images, sheet music, newspapers and other text documents that present popular views on, and the causes and effects of, these laws limiting the economic and physical freedom of African Americans in the Jim Crow in America Primary Source Set.

The NAACP sought to end these practices, which continued well into the 20th century. For example, Lonnie Smith of Houston, Texas, was illegally denied the right to vote in a 1940 primary election. Thurgood Marshall describes his work on the Smith v. Allwright voting rights case in a detailed, and often humorous, memo with the subject “Saving the Race.” Find a printable PDF of this letter, along with a teacher’s guide, photographs, and maps documenting the fights against lynching and segregated schools as well as the march toward equal voting rights in the NAACP Primary Source Set.

You may have students:

  • Read the 15th Amendment and re-write it in their own words.
  • Study the images presented in the lithograph of The Fifteenth Amendment and identify what rights granted by the amendment are portrayed. What images or events would they add if they were invited to contribute?
  • Analyze items selected from the NAACP or Jim Crow Primary Source Sets to construct a timeline.
  • Read Thurgood Marshall’s memo. Why did he call it “Saving the Race”?

In the comments, tell us which primary sources were powerful in helping your students understand the struggles of African Americans to attain voting rights.

2 Comments

  1. Cathi Franchino
    October 17, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Many of the primary sources referenced in this post, particularly those in the Jim Crow set, might be used in combination with Barbara Wright’s historical fiction novel Crow.

  2. Gloria Jung
    June 21, 2020 at 10:50 am

    Great concrete help to educate our children

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