The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was the third of the three so-called Reconstruction amendments to settle constitutional questions that the Civil War had created. Ratified in 1870, five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and two years after the Fourteenth Amendment granted freedmen citizenship, the Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to African American men, providing the most important key to participation in the American democratic process to millions of formerly enslaved, and politically excluded, people.
News of the Fifteenth Amendment's passage was greeted with jubilation in African American communities. There were major parades in New York and Baltimore to celebrate the occasion, as well as commemorative events in subsequent years to mark the anniversary. The expansion of the franchise also had the immediate effect of increasing the number of African American men serving in public office. It is estimated that between the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the end of Congressional Reconstruction in 1877, about two thousand African Americans served in local and state government offices, including state legislatures and as members of Congress.
These gains, however, proved difficult to maintain, especially in the face of increasing white hostility to progress made by African Americans. By late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries, as northern Republicans grew weary of interceding in the political and racial conflicts in the South, southern whites successful engineered, through the law and through force, a return to “home rule.” Legislatures throughout the South instituted provisions like literacy tests, poll taxes, and “grandfather clauses” in their constitutions, effectively limiting the eligibility of African American men, and scores of white men, to vote and hold elected office. What was not accomplished through the law, however, was accomplished through threats, intimidation, and violence, mainly at the hands of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Not until the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s—a period sometime referred to as American's Second Reconstruction—were most African Americans able to regain this lost political ground. The ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964 outlawing the poll tax in federal elections, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (not to mention the earlier passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 giving black and all other women the right to vote) were meaningful steps in restoring to America's black citizens the protections necessary to secure their right to vote and to participate effectively in America's democratic process.