The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was the last of the so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” passed in the wake of the Civil War. After its ratification in 1870, no change would be made to the nation’s central organizing document for over 40 years.
It is fitting that today is Election Day, because Amendment Fifteen deals quite directly with that most hallowed of American rights: the vote. In part, it reads as follows:
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.
Plain and simple, after 1870 the Constitution guaranteed the right to vote no matter one’s race. The change made sense in light of the new post-War America and the situation of the freedmen.
There was a problem, however. A problem that surrounded all of the Reconstruction Era legal changes: enforcement and “follow through.” For while legal rights such as freedom, equal protection, and the vote were natural derivations of the outcome of the Civil War, they were only words. High-minded and hopeful words. But only words.
The words of the Fifteenth Amendment and the two that preceded it gave confidence to those that supported the rights of freedmen. Confidence, perhaps, that because laws had been changed and rights extended, democracy might take care of itself. Further systemic or societal changes might not be necessary. The law was the law, after all. The right to vote meant a right to have a say.
In a perfect world, such new legal arrangements might have made all the difference. But not in this one. Satisfied, perhaps, with the amendments passed and tired of the strain of forcibly reuniting the country, by the end of the 1870s the last of the federal troops departed the South and Reconstruction was over. Reformers in the North could pat themselves on the back and say that they had done what they set out to do. The South? They had new laws, sure. But not the will to obey them, nor the threat they would face much resistance if they ignored them.
Jim Crow discrimination of freedmen, sharecropping practices that were all but slavery in another name, and things like poll taxes, voting tests, and violent intimidation crept into the South with a vigor after the end of Reconstruction. No amendment stopped their rise. Indeed, it would be another seven or eight decades before the rest of the country had the wherewithal to start requiring the South (and others) to simply follow the rules.
All of this to say, as I’ve been taught as an historian and believe as a person of faith, is that the law by itself does not fix everything. It cannot. There are always loopholes. There are always ways around things…and people will find them. Simply passing a law of any kind does not guarantee enforcement, obedience, or righteousness. It just means we passed a law.
Real change is deeper. It is personal. It is societal. It is structural, and it requires action. Don’t get me wrong: the law has an important part to play in creating positive change…but only a part. Simply enacting a law, assuming all is well and good, and walking away satisfied is not the answer. If the legacy of Reconstruction has anything to teach us, it is certainly this.