March 30, 2020, is the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (ratified Feb. 3, 1870), which nationally expanded the right to vote to Black men by making it illegal to prevent people from voting based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Amendment did not pass without a struggle.
And in 1868, citizenship didn’t automatically mean the right to vote, yet the presence of new citizens in the form of formerly enslaved people forced Congress to consider what citizenship and voting actually meant.
Congress encountered several historical problems. First, the right to vote was long thought to have been a privilege, and not an essential element of citizenship. Second, voting rights had been the purview of states, not the Federal government. Based on these understandings, conservative white southerners unleashed an assault on black voting that ranged from bribery to political intimidation to outright violence.