Black women in the South were largely barred from voting until the mid-1960s.
When the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, it gave women throughout the nation the right to vote, achieving a goal as old as the nation itself. While the amendment marked a step forward in women's equality, it did not benefit all women equally, and work toward women's equality endures even a century later.
This is part two of a three-part series in which Texas Tech University faculty member Emily Skidmore shares the history and impact of the 19th amendment.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, as slaves were freed throughout the country, Black men were given the right to vote. Women, regardless of ethnicity, weren't.
For those women who had worked tirelessly in both the women's rights movement and the abolition movement, that result was unacceptable.
"Some of the founding mothers, if you will, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were furious that African American men were given the right to vote at the end of the Civil War and not white women," said Texas Tech University's Emily Skidmore, an associate professor of U.S. history specializing in gender and sexuality. "So some of these women said pretty racist things about how they – white, upper-class, educated women – were more qualified to have the right to vote than these newly freed people."
But Black men, particularly those in the South, still faced significant challenges to voting.
And when women finally gained the right to vote 50 years later, Black women found the same obstacles in their paths.
'Separate but equal'
Ratified in February 1870, the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on "race, color or previous condition of servitude." But because Reconstruction bills in 1869 specified that Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia must ratify the amendment before they could regain congressional representation, some states felt coerced.
In response, many southern, formerly Confederate states enacted laws that raised barriers for voter registration. Such laws implemented literacy tests, poll taxes, property-ownership requirements, moral character tests and more, which effectively barred most Black men from voting. Grandfather clauses exempted white men from these obstacles.
But voting wasn't the only arena from which Black people were barred. As federal troops withdrew from the South in the mid-1870s, local and state governments enacted laws to enforce racial segregation in public places. As early as 1892, such laws became known as "Jim Crow laws," based on a popular 1820s song-and-dance caricature performance by a white actor in blackface.
Jim Crow laws were challenged in court, but the challenges often failed.
In 1892, New Orleans resident Homer Plessy boarded a train and took a seat in the "whites only" car as dictated by Louisiana's Separate Car Act. Plessy had light skin, but one of his great-grandparents was Black, which under Louisiana law, classified him as Black. When told he had to sit in the "colored" car, Plessy refused and was arrested. Plessy lost in court under the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, and ultimately appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In May 1896, the Supreme Court issued a 7-1 decision against Plessy, ruling that the Louisiana law did not violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established the legal equality of white and Black Americans. Because there was a car for white people and a car for Black people, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld segregation as "separate but equal."
It was anything but.
Schools for Black children were consistently underfunded compared to those for white children. Public libraries for Black people, where they existed, were often stocked with secondhand books. Segregation even extended to restroom facilities, water fountains and restaurant seating.
In areas with large Black populations, Black men were elected to local offices throughout the 1880s, but voting was suppressed for state and national elections. Taken together with segregation and the more stringent voter registration requirements, these measures led to a drastic decrease in political participation among Black men.
In Louisiana in 1900, Black people comprised the majority of the state's population, but only 5,320 Black voters were registered. By 1910, that number had dropped to 730 – less than half a percent of eligible Black men. In North Carolina, Black men were completely eliminated from voter rolls from 1896-1904. Those unable to vote could not serve on juries or run for local offices, so they effectively disappeared from political life.
On Aug. 18, 1920, with Tennessee's ratification of the 19th amendment, women's suffrage became law throughout the nation. Some women, particularly white women, were eager to exercise their new right and began voting immediately.
"There were other women who didn't take advantage of this new right, either because of social or familial pressure," Skidmore said.
"It's important to note that, even though states were required to allow women the right to vote, the ability to practice this franchise varied greatly along racial lines."
In the 19th century, and even into the early 20th century, many immigrants from places like Italy, Ireland and Russia had faced prejudice and persecution. But by 1920, they were folded into the American definition of whiteness, Skidmore explained. As long as they were citizens, they were allowed to vote.
Many Black women, who had been left behind with white women when Black men received the right to vote, now found themselves in the disadvantaged group yet again – this time, left behind with other minority groups as white women practiced their new right to vote.
"There were big gaps in the experience of the right to vote based on race, based most often on the state laws," Skidmore said. "If you were an African American woman in the South, you probably weren't able to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – that's 45 years later."
Other minority women also were barred from voting in 1920.
"It wasn't until the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 that Native Americans were recognized as citizens, though many states passed laws denying them the right to vote – it wasn't until 1947 that Arizona and New Mexico changed their state laws, and similar state laws stayed on the books until 1962," Skidmore said. "Similarly, it wasn't until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 that Asian American immigrant women were allowed to vote.
"Hispanic people, especially in the South, were frequently prevented from voting through tactics like literacy tests, which were in English only. So, Jim Crow state laws weren't written with an explicit reference to race, but in practice they were, in fact, designed to make sure non-Anglo people were barred from voting. Many of the same laws that barred African Americans from voting in the South, also impacted Latinos. It was not until 1975 that the Voting Rights Act was amended to make voting materials and ballots available in multiple languages."
Civil Rights Movement
One benefit of having been so long denied their rights was that Black individuals and their allies knew how to protest and organize. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1911, went to court again and again to fight the laws depriving Black voters of their rights. Numerous anti-segregation demonstrations and boycotts took place through the 1930s and 1940s, but the largest gains came in 1950s.
In part, this was because of World War II. More than 125,000 Black soldiers served overseas in famous segregated units, like the Tuskegee Airmen and 761st Tank Battalion, and dozens of black nurses volunteered, despite being segregated from the white nurses for much of the war. The Black soldiers so proved their value in combat that in July 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of all U.S. armed forces.
After risking their lives to fight for freedom across the world, Black veterans were impatient with the oppression they faced at home. They increasingly challenged segregation, believing they had earned the right to be treated as full citizens.
In 1951, Oliver Brown, an assistant pastor in Topeka, Kansas, tried to enroll his daughter, Linda Carol Brown, in Sumner Elementary, a white school that was seven blocks from their home. He was unhappy that the third-grader had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to catch a ride to Monroe Elementary, the Black school a mile away. They were refused enrollment – and they were not alone. Ultimately, 13 parents filed a class-action lawsuit, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, on behalf of their children. They called for the district to reverse its segregation policy, which was based on an 1879 Kansas law that permitted, but did not require, the district to maintain separate facilities for Black and white students.
After the U.S. District Court in Kansas ruled against the families, relying on the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous 9–0 decision in favor of the Brown family and the other plaintiffs, ruling that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality.
The ruling was followed the next year by Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Mongomery, Alabama. The event launched the more-than-yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by the pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1957, King and other civil rights activists created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to harness the moral authority and organizing power of Black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform. King believed that organized, nonviolent protest against Jim Crow laws would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for Black equality and voting rights.
A series of campaigns throughout the South, in which protestors were repeatedly attacked by police, began to garner public support around the country for the Civil Rights Movement. As such, the federal government faced increasing pressure to protect the voting rights of racial minorities.
In the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, Congress authorized the attorney general to sue on behalf of individuals being denied their voting right based on race. Accordingly, the act created the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate voting rights deprivations and the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice to enforce civil rights through legislation.
The Civil Rights Act of 1960 allowed federal courts to appoint referees for voter registration in jurisdictions that discriminated against racial-minority voters.
But strict legal standards and resistance from local election officials hampered their efforts. Between 1957 and 1964, the Black voter-registration rate in the South increased only marginally, even though the Department of Justice filed 71 voting rights lawsuits.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Based on the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, on June 11, 1963, two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, tried to enroll at the University of Alabama. Waiting in the doorway to block their attempt was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, himself. He didn't move until the U.S. deputy attorney general and Alabama's U.S. National Guard, federalized by President John F. Kennedy, confronted him.
That very night, Kennedy addressed the nation and proposed legislation "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public" and providing "greater protection for the right to vote." Eight days later, he sent his bill to Congress.
Kennedy kept a close eye on the bill in the House of Representatives. After it underwent months of revisions by the Judiciary Committee, Kennedy called congressional leaders to the White House in late October 1963 to discuss whether it had enough votes to pass. In November, the bill was sent from the Judiciary Committee to the Rules Committee. Howard W. Smith, the chair of the Rules Committee and a staunch segregationist from Virginia, made it known that he intended for the bill to stay there indefinitely, never reaching the House floor for a vote.
Everything changed on Nov. 22, 1963. While riding in a motorcade through Dallas, waving and smiling at the crowds along the side of the road, Kennedy was shot. His death that afternoon – then officially an assassination – changed the political landscape for his civil rights bill.
Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president on the plane from Dallas to Washington, D.C. In his first address to Congress five days later, Johnson said, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long."
Despite pressure to discharge the bill from the Rules Committee, Smith resisted until Congress adjourned for its winter recess. Upon their return, it became obvious that public support was behind the bill. To avoid humiliation, Smith relented and allowed the bill to pass through the Rules Committee.
On the House floor, however, Smith introduced a last-minute amendment to Kennedy's bill, adding in the prohibition to discriminate based on gender. The Congressional record shows that when he announced this proposal, his House colleagues laughed.
Historians are not sure whether Smith saw the amendment as a means to defeat the bill, by taking away the support of men who would not support gender equality, or whether he had come to view the bill's passage as inevitable and wanted to extend those civil rights to women as well as Black people.
Smith, by his own assertion, was not joking. In fact, he had for decades been close to the National Woman's Party and its leader Alice Paul, who had been instrumental in winning women the right to vote. Since 1945, Smith and Paul had been looking for a way to include sex as a protected civil rights category. After Michigan Rep. Martha Griffiths argued that Kennedy's bill would unfairly protect Black women but not white women, Smith and Griffiths teamed up as the amendment's most vocal proponents. With the amendment approved, the bill passed quickly.
Kennedy's bill came before the U.S. Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, and 19 southern senators launched a filibuster effort to avoid bringing the measure to a vote. They continued for 54 days, until four senators announced a substitute bill – a compromise, of sorts, that they hoped would attract enough votes to be able to force the end of the filibuster, a rare measure called cloture.
On June 10, the bill's manager believed he had the 67 votes necessary for cloture, so he called for a vote. Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill, and it had only achieved cloture once in the past four decades.
During the cloture vote, each senator cast his vote "yea" or "nay" when his name was called. California Sen. Clair Engle, suffering from terminal brain cancer, was wheeled into the chamber as the vote began. When his name was called, Engle, unable to speak, lifted his hand and pointed to his left eye, signifying his "yea." The measure passed by a four-vote margin, ending the debate and bringing the compromise bill to the Senate floor for a full vote.
On June 19, it passed the Senate 73-27. The House quickly adopted the Senate version, and on July 2, Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included some voting rights protections. It required registrars to equally administer literacy tests in writing to each voter and accept applications that contained minor errors, and it created a rebuttable presumption that persons with a sixth-grade education were sufficiently literate to vote. But, to many civil rights leaders, the act fell short by failing to prohibit most forms of voting discrimination.
Johnson recognized this and, after his party gained overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1964 election, he instructed the attorney general to draft the strictest, most inclusive voting rights act possible. Johnson's advisers recommended he wait, since it was so soon after the sweeping Civil Rights Act passed.
But at the same time, civil rights organizations were pushing for federal action to protect minorities' voting rights. Their efforts escalated from demonstrations into violent, even deadly, clashes with police in Selma, Alabama, in early 1965. On March 7, marchers traveling from Selma to Montgomery to address Gov. Wallace were stopped by state and county police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The police shot tear gas and trampled protesters. The event, remembered as "Bloody Sunday," outraged the nation.
Johnson decided the time had come. On March 15, he gave a televised address to a joint session of Congress, calling on legislators to enact expansive voting rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced two days later.
Despite efforts by southern senators to add amendments to weaken the bill, the Senate version easily passed on May 26. After the House version of the bill passed through the Judiciary Committee, Smith delayed it in the Rules Committee. When another senator initiated proceedings to have the bill discharged from the committee, Smith backed down and allowed the bill's release. On July 9, the House passed it 333-85.
Because the House and Senate versions differed somewhat, the bill had to be reconciled, but it ultimately passed, and Johnson signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965. King, Parks and other civil rights leaders were there to witness the historic moment.
After its enactment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 immediately decreased racial discrimination in voting. Literacy tests were suspended, and the presence of federal observers allowed nearly 250,000 Black men and women to register to vote in 1965.
The effects continued to grow over the following years. In 1965, less than one-third of Black people were registered to vote. By 1967, more than half were. The number of Black elected officials also increased.
It seemed that Black women, like their white counterparts, had finally achieved their rights. It seemed that women, as a whole, were on their way to achieving equality with men.
And yet, more than 50 years later, racial and gender inequities in the U.S. still endure.
Part one: Women's Suffrage Was More Than A Century In the Making.
Part two: The 19th Amendment Did Not Benefit All Women Equally.
Part three: A Century After Women's Suffrage, Work Toward Equality Continues.