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'08 Elections Mark 138 Years of Black Men Voting

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'08 Elections Mark 138 Years of Black Men Voting


'08 Elections Mark 138 Years of Black Men Voting

'08 Elections Mark 138 Years of Black Men Voting

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Sunday was the 138th anniversary of the 15th amendment's ratification, which guaranteed black men the right to vote in 1870. Theodore Shaw, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, talks about the amendment and the later provision for women to vote.


Finally, today is Super Tuesday, and voters in some 24 states will go to the polls to select their party's nominees for president. As the world knows, one of those competing for the honor is an African-American man. As part of our ongoing coverage of the end of the Transatlantic slave trade, we thought it fitting to note that Sunday marked the anniversary of the ratification 15th Amendment to the constitution. On February 3rd, 1870, 29 of the 37 states ratified the amendment, which extended full citizenship rights to former slaves.

Joining me in our Washington D.C. studio to talk about this historic occasion is Theodore Shaw. He is the director counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. THEODORE SHAW (Director Counsel and President, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: What exactly did the 15th Amendment do?

Mr. SHAW: The 15th Amendment was one of three post Civil War amendments that were aimed at putting African-Americans, the recently freed slaves, on equal footing. And specifically what it did was guarantee the right to vote for African-Americans - actually, for black males at the time, because women were not given the right to vote.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. How come it didn't include me?

Mr. SHAW: Well, it didn't because women weren't part of the franchise until the 20th century, the 19th Amendment. So, unfortunately, it didn't bring in everybody into the fullness of a political participation. But for black males, it did. The 15th Amendment said that the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. But, of course, it really just spoke to males.

MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that states like New York, New Jersey, Delaware, California, states that we now think of as fairly liberal - if I could use that word - ratified the amendment only after they rejected it first? And in some cases, they only ratified it long after it became inevitable that it was going to pass. What do you make of that?

Mr. SHAW: Well, the 15th Amendment has a very, very interesting history, as do all of the constitutional amendments, but, of course, the post Civil War amendment in particular. And Abraham Lincoln - President Lincoln proposed the 15th Amendment. But when he first proposed it several years earlier, he actually was thinking about African-Americans returning to Africa, sending significant numbers of African-Americans - if not most of us - back to Africa. And so he didn't even get his head around what we now think of as the 15th Amendment right away. The Congress that rejected the 15th Amendment originally was the 39th Congress, and then the 40th Congress enacted it, but it was because of the politics at the time.

It had to do with the Republicans who felt like they couldn't do it in the midterm because they had to face being elected again. When they became a lame duck Congress, they felt that they wouldn't be punished for doing it, so they went ahead and voted for the enactment of the 15th Amendment.

But all these amendments came only with great difficulty. And then, of course, the 15th Amendment was not enforced for a long time.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. So black men technically got the right to vote in 1870, but did they actually get to vote?

Mr. SHAW: Well, interestingly enough, as you probably know, Michel, yes, they did. And in many of the Southern states and many places in the North, there was enfranchisement of black men. You had black men being elected to office in Louisiana and Mississippi, in South Carolina. There was a short - relatively short period of time before the end of Reconstruction where there was significant black political participation. And then you had, in 1876, a disputed presidential election much like, in some respects, the 2000 election, in which there was a political compromise that resolved that dispute. And it was resolved on the backs of African-Americans. The South basically made a deal that they would support the election of Hayes as…

MARTIN: Rutherford B. Hayes.

Mr. SHAW: That's right. And in return, of course, the Union troops were withdrawn from the South, and that cleared the way for the Klan, for violence, intimidation, terrorism, and a long, long night of political disenfranchisement that only ended in what we now call the Second Reconstruction and in 1960s and with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and in '64, the enactment of another constitutional amendment that banned the poll tax. So this is a long, long struggle. And it wasn't - it was only in the late 1960s that we really began to see the right to vote guaranteed, finally, for African-Americans.

MARTIN: And women, I should say, took a, what, 15 more years for…

Mr. SHAW: Well, that's right.

MARTIN: …women to get the right to vote, in sort of the 1920's or something?

Mr. SHAW: That's right.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Shaw, thanks so much for joining us and also reminding us that our right doesn't necessarily mean the opportunity to exercise that right, and that is also another - it takes a little bit more work too sometimes. Okay.

Mr. SHAW: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Theodore Shaw is the director counsel president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He was kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington.

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