The end of the Civil war freed African-Americans and granted them citizenship rights. Even though Congress accepted the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution that declared voting right regardless of previous condition and race, the situation remained complicated. Various issues that prevented African-Americans from participating in the political life of the country may be noted, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation. While supporters of their rights strived for eliminating racial discrimination and exercising rights of citizens for African-Americans, opponents argued that only citizens with education and income should vote and perform other political actions.
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Arguments of Proponents
The most apparent argument stated by those who protected and declared the political rights of African-Americans was the need to eliminate discrimination. Political rights were perceived by African-Americans and their supporters of various backgrounds as the way to act like productive members of society. By showing their awareness and the ability to make rational decisions, it was expected to contribute to the formation of a better nation.1 The establishment of equality in terms of political actions was meant to eradicate racial discrimination that lasted for years. Such a viewpoint reflected the very idea of democracy that implies voting of all citizens.
One more statement of promoting political rights for African-Americans is associated with the need to develop this population that previously had no chances for a better life. For example, one of the most prominent leaders of that time, Du Bois, researched this topic and concluded that racially segregated schools only encouraged further inequality and undermined African-American progress.2 It should be stressed that the methods used by supporters were primarily non-violent.
For example, Booker T. Washington as a representative of the late 19th-century African-American leader, used meetings and campaigns. Therefore, he actively debated the mentioned issue, insisting that separated education leads to the upbringing of new servants. In the context of democracy, this point also seems to be justified since all the citizens should have equal rights for education to be able to participate in the political arena.
Furthermore, supporters tried to eliminate the consequences of racial oppression such as violence, lynching, and other types of inappropriate behavior towards African-Americans. The members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) may be noted among those who prevented them from voting by initiating public shootings such as the Colfax massacre of 1873 when African-Americans gathered to protect their rights.3
Even though the Enforcement Acts were adopted to prosecute such events, the evidence shows that conspiracy and corruption were used by KKK. In this connection, the desire of supporters and African-Americans to improve the situation was vital. It should be emphasized that Northern states were more loyal to African-American citizens as there were more registered voters.4 As for Southern states, their position was to prevent the entrance of the identified population to the electorate. The belief in equality between citizens regardless of their race and nation as inalienable parts of democracy were targeted by proponents of political rights.
Viewpoints of Opponents
The legal barriers were made by the opponents of political rights for African-Americans in the late 19th century. Even though the right to vote was granted to African-Americans, the states that were in the Confederate army denied them. Since the majority of African-Americans living in the North voted for Republicans, Democrats feared that a similar state of affairs may occur in the South and argued against political rights. The main reason for the latter was the statement that the implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment would violate the right of states to have their independent elections.5
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To keep African-Americans marginalized and vulnerable, several laws were passed, the most important of which are poll taxes and literacy tests. At the same time, many election places were characterized by inappropriate attention to African-Americans, who were often mocked by Whites who might physically limit the entrance of the former. In other words, the point of the opposition was rather biased towards the right of African-American males to vote.
Another important argument stated by the opponents of African-Americans’ political rights was a lack of education of the latter. Anti-literacy laws that acted before and during the Civil War prohibited visiting colleges and institutions, which deprived the opportunity to receive an education. The Reconstruction period was marked by the opening of many schools across the country, in which African-Americans were segregated from white students. Nevertheless, the opponents of the identified right considered that uneducated people were not able to analyze and compare the political statements, which was regarded as a threat to the outcomes of elections. In addition, it was argued that African-Americans are more prone to accept misleading promises along with outright bribery.
Those who opposed African-American suffrage were sure that coming to the polls depends on socio-economic reasons. Americans living in prosperity and having educations were expected to exercise their right to vote more fully than poor and uneducated citizens. Only the former who might understand and analyze the events of public life was likely to take an active part in it. These processes that took place in the society of that time were not going in line with the concept of democracy. In general, the mentioned concept implies equal rights and freedoms for all citizens, while African-Americans encountered barriers that they could not overcome.6
The key question is whether the limitations to voting set for them were Constitutional or not. The original intent of the Democratic Party that struggled for equal rights for all seems to be substituted by false goals. Not only the political rights but also moral considerations may be noted among the issues that were inaccessible for African-Americans of the late 19th century. Thus, the opponents of the identified rights were led by their own ideals and objectives that were different from what democracy proposed.
To conclude, it is significant to emphasize that the introduction of the Fifteenth Amendment as a result of the Civil War did not automatically eradicate racial segregation in the US. After the mentioned events, African-Americans and their supporters still had to fight for their political rights. They combated for the elimination of violence and inequality between people, thus acting in the context of democracy.
The opponents of these rights stated that only educated citizens having high incomes should vote. The political right for African-Americans has become one of the main achievements of the US democracy. This progress shows the strength, abilities, and responsibility of those who strived to improve America. By supporting the voting right of African-American suffrage and their overall participation in the political life of the country, racial discrimination was significantly reduced.
Button, James W. Blacks and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Communities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Hammar, Tomas. Democracy and the Nation State. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Kluegel, James R., and Eliot R. Smith. Beliefs About Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.
Lewis, Patrick A. “The Democratic Partisan Militia and the Black Peril: The Kentucky Militia, Racial Violence, and the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870-1873.” Civil War History 56, no. 2 (2010): 145-174.
Wang, Xi. The Trial of Democracy: Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
- James W. Button, Blacks, and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Communities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 41.
- William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Routledge, 2017), 163.
- Xi Wang, The Trial of Democracy: Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 95.
- Tomas Hammar, Democracy and the Nation-State (New York: Routledge, 2017), 32.
- Patrick A. Lewis, “The Democratic Partisan Militia and the Black Peril: The Kentucky Militia, Racial Violence, and the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870-1873,” Civil War History 56, no. 2 (2010): 152.
- James R. Kluegel and Eliot R. Smith, Beliefs About Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017), 55.