Ninety-five years ago, when the U.S. added the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, President Ulysses S. Grant called it "a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind, from the foundation of our free Government to the present day." The 15th did indeed have a grand ring: it promised 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."
Nevertheless, the great promise of the 15th Amendment was never fulfilled; it was like a stirring march that was written but never played. It needed strong legislative implementation to make it come alive.
The voting rights bill that President Johnson sent to Congress last week strikes up the band. As Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, prime mover and a key author of the bill, explained to a House Judiciary Subcommittee last week: "This bill applies to every kind of election, federal, state and local, including primaries. It is designed to deal with the two principal means of frustrating the 15th Amendment: the use of onerous, vague, unfair tests and devices enacted for the purpose of disenfranchising Negroes, and the discriminatory administration of these and other kinds of registration requirements."
Limited Franchise. The voting rights bill did not spring entirely from spur-of-the-moment shock at the outrages in Selma. Back in November, the President had ordered White House aides and Justice Department attorneys to begin designing a powerful and unprecedented measure to assure Negro voting rights. Well aware that it would be subjected to a quick and savage attack from the South on constitutional grounds, Johnson warned Katzenbach: "I want this bill completely legal." That was possible. But to make it completely tamperproof was another matter.
The notion that the Constitution absolutely assures every citizen the right to vote is quite wrong. "At the time the Constitution was framed," explains University of Chicago Law Professor Philip Kurland, "it provided for only a limited franchise." That franchise in 1789 went almost exclusively to white males; most Negroes were slaves, with no rights at all, and it was to be 131 years before women would be permitted to vote.
The 15th Amendment, enacted by zealous Reconstructionists, was indeed a historic cornerstone. It gave Congress the power to enforce equal voting rights through legislation, in effect overriding Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which leaves voting qualifications entirely up to the states. But the legislation that Congress devised was more often than not sloppily written or beyond constitutional bounds. The effect of it all was virtual disenfranchisement of Negroes in the Deep South.