For the most part, voting rights are limited to white, male property owners over the age of 21. In some places, free Black men who own property are able to vote, but these are rare exceptions. Slavery prevents the vast majority of Black people from voting at this time (as well as from basic civil rights).
Voting in the Colonies
First African Slaves Taken Forcibly to Jamestown Colony
The enslavement of African people in what would later become the United States begins with the first slave ship landing in the colony of Virginia. This begins a long and violent history of racism in the United States, continuing indefinitely into the future.
Massachusetts freemen petition for the vote
"No taxation without representation" hypocrisy
A group of freemen, including Boston business owner of African and American Indian descent, Paul Cuffee (pictured), fight for the right to vote. In the petition, they demand to be excused from paying taxes on the grounds that they have "no voice or influence in the election of those who tax us." Their petition is denied, but the suit helps push the Massachusetts Legislature to grant voting rights to all free male citizens of the state in 1783.
U.S. Constitution is Adopted
It contains no standard for voting rights, so states have the freedom to make their own laws. Most choose to limit voting to white male landowners.
State Voting Rights Begin to Expand
Six states (Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont) permit free Black men to vote by this year. Of the original 13 colonies, only Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina explicitly prevent people from voting based on race. But by the early 1800s most states enact laws to limit or remove the Voting rights of Black men.
State voting rights contract
Every new state that joins the union after 1819 explicitly denies African American men the right to vote. African American men lose the right to vote in states like New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut, where free Black men previously had the right to vote. New York enacts a law that says African American men need to have property to vote, but doesn't have the same policy for white men. Some historians point out that the white middle class in Northern states were afraid of African Americans gaining political power. Therefore, they took steps to make sure that African Americans would continue to be politically oppressed, even if they were not enslaved.
Pennsylvania disenfranchises African American Men
Abolitionists fight against the change
A proposed amendment to Pennsylvania's constitution to bar African Americans from voting inspires the "Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement, To the People of Pennsylvania," drafted by African American abolitionist Robert Purvis. The change passes anyway.
Abolitionist Gerrit Smith purchases land and distributes it to African-Americans in New York, making them landowners and thus eligible to vote.
Sojourner Truth delivers her famous "Ain't I a woman?" speech
At a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, former slave Sojourner Truth improvises an energetic speech stressing the equality of men and women and drawing attention to issues of racial inequality. This speech brings up the need for equality racially and between genders, since the African Americans that could vote at the time were all males.
Continued contraction of voting rights
Now, only 5 states — Maine, Massachusetts, New Hapshire, Rhode Island and Vermont — allow African American men to vote without significant restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
The Southern states break off of the United States in an effort to retain legal slavery, fearing that the North would force its abolition. African Americans who fought for the Union (the North) are forced to serve in segregated regiments.
President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederate states. However, Lincoln’s Reconstruction Plan does not require states to give African Americans the vote. In March of 1864, Lincoln writes to the governor of Louisiana to suggest granting suffrage to “some of the colored people … for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.” This idea of partial suffrage shows the common view among white people at the time that most African Americans should not be voting.
Creation of Black Codes
States across the South pass "Black codes,” or "Jim Crow" laws to add an official side to the informal white supremacy and social control over African Americans that was somewhat removed by ending slavery. Codes include barring African Americans from voting or holding office, limiting property rights and job opportunities and restricting migration to cities.
Reaction to Black Codes
Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1866, stating that all persons born in the United States are now citizens, regardless of race, color or previous condition. American Indians are mostly discluded from this Act. All former African American slaves are granted citizenship.
Continued black resistance after the civil war
Freemen throughout the South call for the vote. In New Orleans, the Black community holds a mock election to demonstrate their participation in the electoral process. In the same year, Andrew Tait and 58 other African Americans in Tennessee petition a convention of pro-Union whites to abolish slavery, allow Blacks to testify in court and give Blacks citizenship and the right to vote.
Slavery Abolished nationwide
The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress in February, abolishes legal slavery in the United States. It is approved by the states in December.
Military rule in the South begins
The Reconstruction Act of March 1867 establishes military rule over southern states until new governments can be formed. It also gives former male slaves the right to vote and hold public office.
Ku Klux Klan Terrorism on the rise
The white supremacist hate group mounts violent campaigns against African Americans who voted, ran for office, were economically successful or owned land. Hundreds are killed and even more are injured. The KKK is supported tacitly and overtly by many whites, including powerful officials.
Congress passes the Enforcement Act and The Ku Klux Klan Act
Congress passes the 1870 Enforcement Act and The Ku Klux Klan Act. The first makes it a federal crime to interfere with voting, and takes those cases to federal courts rather than biased state and local courts. The second gives the federal government the authority to use the army to defend voting rights. With federal enforcement, politically charged violence against African Americans falls in 1872, but begins to rise again later in the 1870s.
Passage and Ratification of the 14th Amendment
Congress passes the 14th Amendment, placing the rights granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 into the Constitution. The 14th Amendment defines citizens to include all people “born or naturalized in the United States.” States are also forbidden to pass laws that would limit the privileges of citizenship or keep African Americans from having equal protection of laws, although voting regulation is still left in the hands of the states. Citizenship is defined and granted to former slaves. Voters, however, are explicitly defined as male.
Voting rights for Black males are a requirement in southern states, but northern states settle the issue for themselves.
Passage and Ratification of the 15th amendment
The Amendment states that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude". It is ratified by the states in February. Over one million men who had been slaves in 1860 are now able to vote. Ratification is hard fought except in New England and the southern states governed by legislatures put in place by Reconstruction. Concerns focus on the authority of the federal government over states and precedent and extension to ethnic groups, Irish and Chinese immigrants, the uneducated, and the poor. NWSA refuses to work for the amendment's ratification, arguing, instead, that it be "scrapped" in favor of a 16th Amendment providing universal suffrage. Frederick Douglass breaks with Stanton and Anthony over NWSA's actions.
Supreme Court Cases Support Discrimination
Two Supreme Court rulings severely limit voting rights for African American men — U.S. v. Reese and U.S. v. Cruikshank. In U.S. v. Reese, an election official from Kentucky refused to register an African American for a municipal vote. The United States Supreme Court rules that the 15th Amendment prohibits exclusion from voting due to race but does not stop states from refusing the right to vote based on requirements such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Additionally, the Supreme Court rules in the Cruikshank case that the “right to participate in state politics was derived from the states” and the federal government should not be the one to fix issues. The Cruikshank case made it almost impossible to bring a crime against an African American to the federal courts.
Troops withdraw from Southern states
The presidential election ends in a dispute, so the Republicans make a deal with Southern Democrats called the Hayes-Tilden Compromise. Southerners agree to support Republican Rutherford B. Hayes for president and in return, the Republicans promise to withdraw troops from the South, end Reconstruction and stop trying to enforce African American rights, including the right to vote.
Rampant Voter Suppression Throughout the South
The African American vote continues to be limited by illegal means including fraud, violence and intimidation, as well as legal ones like poll taxes, literacy tests, restrictive voter registration and white-only primaries.
The National Association of Colored Women is founded
As part of its goal of "uplifting" the race, the organization calls for voting rights for African American men and women. Suffragist Mary Church Terrell is elected president.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is founded in 1909 in New York by a group of African American and white intellectuals. They publicize the issue of civil rights for African Americans and begin a campaign to end voting discrimination. They fight in court to end poll taxes, white-only primaries and discriminatory literacy tests.
End of "Grandfather clauses"
In its Guinn v. United States ruling, the Supreme Court abolishes "Grandfather clauses," which stated that voters were exempt from poll taxes and literacy tests if their ancestors were registered to vote during the Civil War. These laws prevented Blacks whose ancestors were slaves at that time from voting in elections. The clause gave illiterate whites the right to vote while denying illiterate and poor African Americans. However, states quickly found new loopholes that allowed them to disenfranchise African Americans.
NAACP Victory in Primary Voting Rights
After the Texas legislature passed a law forbidding African Americans from voting in the Democratic primary in 1923, the state was thrust into the center of a struggle to have the United States Supreme Court declare white primaries unconsitutional. Four years later in its Nixon v. Herndon ruling, which was supported by the NAACP, the Supreme Court declares that the Texas law violates the 14th Amendment. States get around this by making their parties private rather than state-sponsored.
World War Two: a tipping point for public support
The public starts to find it hypocritical to deny the vote to men who risk their lives for the United States military. The Soldier Voting Act passes, guaranteeing military members — including African Americans — a vote in presidential and congressional elections during wartime, regardless of registration and poll tax requirements.
Brown v. Board of Education
In this case, the Supreme Court reverses its 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, declaring that segregated facilities (including schools) are not fair or equal. Unfortunately, even though segregation is now unconstitutional, many Southern states refuse to remove their segregation laws.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Gomillion v. Lightfoot
In Gomillion v. Lightfoot (Alabama), the Supreme Court outlaws gerrymandering to deny a certain community a voice. This technique had been used to split up African American communities so that their votes would be lost.
Civil Rights Act of 1960
Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1960, giving the Department of Justice access to all voter registration records and allowing previously rejected African Americans to apply to a federal court or voting referee.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Organized by Bayard Rustin, the march is one of the largest political rallies in American history and attracts roughly 250,000 people, 80 percent of whom are African American. At the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his "I Have a Dream" speech.
In response to Reconstruction, 11 Southern states had instituted a poll tax, which required citizens to pay a fee to vote in a national election and made it difficult for poor African Americans to vote. The 24th Amendment abolishes the poll tax.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Act prohibits segregation in public places and outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
March from Selma to Montgomery
Three protest marches, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were attempted from Selma, Alabama to the state's capitol to express the desire of African American citizens to vote. During the first march, police attacked the unarmed protestors with clubs and tear gas in what became known as "Bloody Sunday." The second march began two days later, but when state troopers stood aside to let the marchers pass, King instead led them back into Selma. For the third march, which took place 12 days later, President Lyndon Johnson promised to protect the Selma marchers and about 4,000 troops guarded the marchers for their four-day journey. When they arrived at the Alabama State Capitol, the group had grown to 25,000 people.
Voting Rights Act
Election officials often tried to stop African Americans voting by telling them they had gotten the time or polling place wrong, insisting that they had filled out an application incorrectly, or requiring them to recite the entire Constitution. The Voting Rights Act works to ban these discriminatory practices, as well as the use of literacy tests and poll taxes that prevented African Americans from voting.
Results of Voting Rights Act start to show
By April, Federal examiners have registered over 235,000 new voters in Alabama alone.
Poll Taxes Eliminated
The Supreme Court, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, eliminates the poll tax as a qualification for voting in any election. A poll tax was still in use in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia.
Literacy Tests Banned
The 1970 Voting Rights Act bans literacy tests, eliminating them all 20 states that still had them, including New York, Illinois and California.
South Carolina passes restrictions
A restrictive voter ID law is presented in South Carolina that would remove 180,000 African Americans from polls, but is shut down by the Justice Department.
Florida limits early voting and voter registration
Florida passes a law that restricts voter registration and makes cuts to early voting. The majority of African Americans in Florida rely on early voting to cast a ballot and register to vote through community-based registration.
Texas attempts to create Voter ID
Texas passes one of the nation's most restrictive voter ID laws. Under the Voting Rights Act, the state is required to submit the law to the Department of Justice or the Washington, D.C. federal district court for approval. The court blocks the law, citing racial impact.