On June 19, 1865, Union troops marched into Texas, the westernmost Confederate state, bringing news to enslaved African Americans that they were free. Four years later, in 1869, the Fifteenth Amendment passed.
The amendment decreed 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.” Despite the law’s clear mandate, the next 100 years were marked by both systematic attempts to suppress the voting rights of Black Americans and courageous efforts to fight discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.
This article, the second in a series of three written in honor of Juneteenth, features works selected as documents of and commentaries on the struggle for full and equal voting rights, from Emancipation to the Civil Rights Movement. These works vividly communicate the profound power of enfranchisement and the dramatic change that can emerge when all citizens have a voice in politics.
Though voting rights have expanded significantly since Emancipation through the work and sacrifice of countless activists, American democracy remains imperfect, and voter suppression, especially targeting people of color, remains a pronounced feature of contemporary politics. With the 2020 elections fast approaching, these works are urgent reminders of the long and unfinished history to fulfill the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment.
This composite photograph was made to document a remarkable yet short-lived shift in American politics in the wake of Emancipation: the election of more than 50 African American men, some formerly enslaved, to the South Carolina legislature in 1868. Their individual portraits are brought together here with those of 12 white representatives. Together they were known as Radical Republicans. This wing of the Republican party formed before the Civil War and prioritized the abolition of slavery. Elected to the state assembly by huge numbers of newly enfranchised voters in South Carolina, Radical Republicans constituted a majority and were able to rewrite the state’s constitution to guarantee African Americans a wide range of civil rights. These reforms were soon reversed as white supremacists employed brutal methods of intimidation to prevent African Americans from voting. This photograph was itself reproduced with additional text as a form of racist propaganda intended to inflame white fears and resentment. Though a powerful reminder of the fleeting transformations of Reconstruction and the revolutionary potential of voting, the photograph ultimately reflects the fragility and instability of these political gains.
The Great Migration and Voting Rights
During the early 20th century, millions of Black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North in what is known as the Great Migration. These migrants uprooted their lives to seek economic opportunity and greater civil rights—including the right to vote—denied them in the oppressive Jim Crow South. Jacob Lawrence, a Black artist known for his epic painting cycle The Migration Series, captures the enthusiastic participation of the recently arrived Southerners in a lively print (pictured above) depicting a crowded polling station where men and women wait to cast their vote in the small booth at back.
Lawrence made this print in 1974 as part of a portfolio commissioned to celebrate the American Bicentennial in 1976. Each artist who contributed to the portfolio was asked to respond to the question “What does independence mean to you?” By answering with a print that depicts those who traveled hundreds of miles to vote, Lawrence reminds us that for many this foundational right of citizenship was—and continues to be—a struggle rather than a guarantee.
Fannie Lou Hamer & Voting Rights in the 1960s
While newly emancipated African American men were enfranchised and served in government during Reconstruction, they and their descendants were denied these fundamental rights during the violent and repressive Jim Crow era. During the 1960s, activists like Fannie Lou Hamer fought tirelessly against this unjust system to ensure that Black voters had a say in politics. In the photograph above at left, Hamer marches with other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an influential student-run civil rights organization, in rainy Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Next to her a young man sports three buttons produced by SNCC that read “We Shall Overcome.” In addition to her work with SNCC, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 to challenge the state’s “regular” segregationist Democratic Party. As the photograph at right documents, the efforts of Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party made it possible for many to participate in elections for the first time nearly 100 years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Katherine Mintie is the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Harvard Art Museums.