Black History Month is a time our nation honors the integral role African Americans have played in the history of our nation. African Americans’ ongoing fight toward equality is rightfully counted among the most extraordinary struggles and triumphs in the history of the world. Despite horrific cruelty and impossible odds, African Americans over the centuries have sacrificed their lives, freedom and safety to demand their rights to liberty and dignity.
When other avenues—including the Supreme Court—failed the movement for black freedom and representation, the amendment process was critical to shaping the fight for racial equality. Indeed, it was the amendment process that created the legal basis to abolish slavery and assure equal political rights for black Americans. As the fight goes on to assert and realize the Constitutional promise of equal representation for all, we humbly honor and celebrate the lives lost in the ongoing battle toward equality for black Americans.
Amendments of Freedom
Amendments are the tool built into for our political system to enable American people to adapt the fundamental laws of our nation over time. The bloodiest battle in our nation’s history, the U.S. Civil War, was resolved by amendments—creating the legal foundation for the equal rights of African Americans. The 13th, 14th and 15h Amendments—collectively known as the Civil War amendments—abolished slavery, expanded citizenship to black Americans and ensured the right to vote cannot be denied based on race.
Shortly before the Civil War, slavery had been upheld as Constitutional by the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Dred Scott v. Sandford that black people could not become American citizens and upheld the legality of slavery. This ruling helped trigger the start of the war. Following the war, so-called “Radical Republicans” in Congress introduced a series of laws and constitutional amendments to try to secure civil and political rights for black people.
Days after General Lee surrendered in 1865, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass said: “If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote…What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.”
The 13th Amendment, ratified later in 1865, began to undo the Dred Scott ruling by banning slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment extended citizenship to black Americans and established legal protections for all citizens.
But black men still weren’t guaranteed the right to vote. The battle over the 15th Amendment was complex. Although former Confederate states were required by law to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions, Northern states were not supportive of black men’s right to vote.
“While Congress debated the 15th Amendment early in 1869, 150 black men from 17 states assembled for a convention in Washington, D.C.,” writes the Constitutional Rights Foundation. “This was the first national meeting of black Americans in the history of the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected president of the convention. The delegates praised the Republicans in Congress for passing the reconstruction laws and congratulated General Grant on his election to the White House. They also pledged their continued support of the Republican Party. Those attending the convention also spent time meeting with members of Congress, encouraging them to pass a strong amendment guaranteeing black male suffrage nationwide. When the meeting adjourned, the delegates were confident that a new era of democracy for the black man was about to begin.”
Amendment for Equal Representation
Despite winning their freedom during and following the Civil War, African Americans were subjected to serious ongoing discrimination. The poll tax was used through the early 1960s to disenfranchise minority and low-income voters. In the 1930s, voters challenged the poll tax in the courts when Nolan Breedlove, a white man, refused to pay the tax and sued the state of Georgia. In 1937, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Breedlove v. Suttles that enacting a poll tax was a state’s right.
The Civil Rights Movement, led by MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, Asa Philip Randolph, John Lewis and other civil rights heroes, spurred great social and legislative changes to expand rights for African Americans. One major accomplishment that came out of the movement was the 24th Amendment, abolishing the poll tax. Ratified in 1964, the 24th Amendment overturned the Breedlove decision.
America’s story is one in which the people have come together to use the amendment process to realize ever-increasing expansions to our notions of equality and representation. Each February, we aim to honor one of the most important and influential of those battles—African Americans’ fight toward freedom and equality under the law.