The Fifteenth Amendment

Attempts to Repeal the Fifteen Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Historians have long known that it was undermined, during the Jim Crow era, by literacy tests and poll taxes and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Little observed in this history, however, are efforts by members of Congress — exclusively from Southern states — to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment. The effort began in 1877 — at the end of Reconstruction — with a proposal to restrict its application, put forward in the Judiciary Committee by a senator from Missouri. The first formal proposals for full repeal were made in the House, in 1900, by congressmen from Alabama and North Carolina. Between 1900 and 1915, versions of this proposal were renewed, virtually every year, sometimes more than once in a year, and sometimes in tandem with proposals to restrict suffrage in other ways.

In 1911, a Mississippi congressman proposed a three-part amendment, calling for a) the election of Senators by popular vote; b) repeal of section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, except first sentence; and c) repeal the Fifteenth Amendment. (This amendment would have repealed these provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment: “when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.”) In 1913, a South Carolina senator introduced a proposal to repeal the entirety of both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

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