African American Heritage

Laws and Court Cases

Since the end of the Civil War, there have been a number of impactful court case decisions, federal legislation passed, and amendments added to the Constitution that have expanded the civil rights of African Americans in the United States. One of these rights has been the right to vote, that was ratified in 1870 and ultimately passed as legislation by the Congress to enforced by the federal government in 1965. From the Dred Scott Case to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the following court and legislative actions have chronicled the long and challenging road to freedom. 



Search the Catalog for Records relating to Laws and Court Cases relating to Voting Rights


Notable Court Cases

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

engraving of Dred Scott

Dred Scott was an enslaved man that sued his owners for his freedom after he had been taken from Missouri to Illinois, claiming that he had automatically been freed once crossing into a territory where slavery was illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Black people "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution," and so were not afforded the rights and privileges that it granted to American citizens.

United States v. Cruikshank (1876)

Stemming from charges against members of the Ku Klux Klan that participated in the Collfax Massacre, U.S. v. Cruikshank was a Supreme Court Case that held that the Bill of Rights did not have to be enforced by state governments despite the adoption of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This case, along with the majority opinion, had a great impact on the protection of civil rights for African Americans and allowed for states, especially in the South, to take measures to suppress Black voting.

United States v. Reese (1876)

This was the U.S. Supreme Court’s first voting rights case since the passage of the 15th Amendment and the Enforcement Act of 1870. It came about after two election inspectors refused to allow William Garner to vote in Kentucky, citing failure to pay a tax. The court held that the 15th amendment did not grant the right to vote, but it prohibited the exclusion from voting on racial grounds. This led to states enacting measures to restrict voting access, including: poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements.

Smith v. Allwright (1944)

cover of case brief

Prominent Black dentist Lonnie Smith attempted to vote in the Texas Democratic Primary in 1940. He decided to sue the county election official who was adhering to the Southern Democrat strategy of holding white only primaries. The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Texas and other states to hold race-based primaries and overturned a Texas state law that had authorized parties to create their own rules for primary elections.


Notable Laws

Fifteenth Amendment (1870)

joint resolution for 15th amendment

This amendment granted the right to vote to citizens regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments collectively make up the Reconstruction Amendments - abolishing slavery, granting citizenship, and voting rights to the Black populace of the United States, respectively. 

Enforcement Acts (1870-1871)

These were a series of bills passed in Congress under President Ulysses S. Grant to uphold and enforce the rights granted to African Americans under the Reconstruction Amendments. The acts banned the use of terror or force to prevent people from voting, granted federal oversight of local elections, and made tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan illegal federal offenses. For a time, this resulted in the suppression of the KKK, but was later undermined by the Supreme Court.

Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964)

joint resolution for the 24th amendment

This amendment states that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax." It was proposed by Congress in 1962 and ratified by the states in 1964. Poll taxes had long been a method to disenfranchise the poor and people of color.

Voting Rights Act of 1965

voting rights act of 1965, page 1

The VRA is federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. Since it is not an amendment, it has to be reauthorized before it expires (now set to 25 years in 2006). The VRA has also been amended by Congress five times to expand its protections. The Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) has most recently changed the VRA, striking down the formula to determine which jurisdictions are subject federal preclearance.



Know Your Records: 50th Anniversaries of Voting Rights, Feb 12, 2015


1965, Where Has the Year Gone?, US Information Agency (NAID 52728)