The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » Groundbreaking Publications: The Colored American Magazine » Shall The Fifteenth Amendment Be Repealed?

Shall The Fifteenth Amendment Be Repealed?

Shall The Fifteenth Amendment Be Repealed?

by Robert W. Carter

At the Race Conference recently held at Montgomery, Ala., Mr. W. Bourke Cockran, an Irish lawyer of New York, took a prominent part.

The influence of his argument was to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment of the National Constitution as a means to solve the Negro problem, and as the only way to settle the difference now existing between the two races in the South.  “That the racial antagonism and mutual distrust which evidently exist in the South are due to the fact that the legal status of the Negro in theory is not his status in fact.”   “That the suppression of this antagonism is the thing needed.”  “That the Fifteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution is, in fact, inoperative.”

“That it is like a dead limb on a tree; that it had been denied public support, and lynched by the states, so to speak.”  With all of Mr. Cochran’s legal learning and splendid eloquence, he forgot that he himself is an immigrant, having fled his own native land to enjoy the liberty of the United States (which is readily given him and also his fellow countrymen, who came to America to better their condition).  And yet according to the constitutional laws of the Federal Government, neither Mr. Cochran nor any of his countrymen have the same right to enjoy all of the privileges as the Negro.  Mr. Cockran is an ex-representative, having been honored to a seat in the National House of Representatives by the great state of New York.

He may some day be governor; but one thing sure:  he cannot be president.  According to his nativity he is not eligible;  but according to the Negro’s nativity he is eligible to become president, or hold any office in the gift of this republic.

“No person except a natural born citizen or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of president.”  This leaves Mr. Cochran out, and permits the Negro in.  Mr. Cockran came to America in 1871; the Negro came in 1620, just two hundred and fifty-one years ahead of him.  This, then, is the Negro’s home, his native land, the land of his birth and home of his toil; where he toiled for years uncompensated, through in the “land of the free” and “the home of the brave.”

But at the end of this long period of unpaid toil – two hundred and fifty years of long suffering – the Negro gained his citizenship as a result of civil war, in which he had bravely fought.  Through the instrumentality of Northern opinions the ballot was placed in his hand.  The Fifteenth Amendment, then, is the basis of citizenship, especially for the Negro, for it says:  “The right of the citizens of the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.”  These enunciations have been our pillar of cloud by day endeavoring to attain a higher degree of civilization, and a lamp to us at night in search of intelligence.  The Fifteenth Amendment is the companion of the Negro by day and his bosom friend at night; it is the basis of citizenship in the pursuit of life and liberty; a guarantee of protection in the pursuit of happiness.

But Mr. Bourke Cockran would repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, the life-giver to happiness, to intelligence, to advancement and civilization, and have the Negroes to throw themselves back upon the legislatures of their several states for justice in politics, in civil courts, and in everything that pertains to the Negro as a man.  But I repeat that the legislatures of the several states in the South had the power for two and a half centuries to elevate the Negro, to give him political justice, and to recognize him as a man in their courts of law.  But did they do it?  Did they put in the hands of the black man the ballot and the power to cast it?  How many school teachers and college professors of the Negro race do we find on record teaching and instructing before the promulgation of the Fifteenth Amendment as a part of constitutional law?  If the legislatures of the Southern States had continued to hold in their power the right of making laws for the Negro race, where would the race be today?  Would they now be paying taxes on five hundred million dollars’ worth of property?  I think not.  Let us think a moment upon the past.  The Negro race possesses more and has accomplished more in thirty-five years of freedom than in the time from 1620 to 1865; yet in face of this plain fact, we are told by Mr. Cockran and others of that conference that the Negro is going back instead of coming forward.  We walked the long road of slavery, and entered the path of freedom ignorant and poor.  Yet in thirty-five years of travel we have among us lawyers and doctors, school teachers, professors in colleges, learned ministers of gospel, and men of classic eloquence who conduct themselves with dignity and grace in the legislative halls of the nation.  We can point with pride to banks owned and controlled by persons of color.  Does this look like going back, or coming forward?

One great danger to any country, government, state, church or society, is ignorance.  Ignorance is the embodiment of contention, the seed of strife, and the soil in which prejudice grows.  Therefore in order to mitigate the race antagonism in the South they must educate the poor, whites and Negros both alike; teach them pride, the care, and dignity of home.  Then will there be less strife, less contention, and less prejudice between the two races.  The promotion of intelligence, of Christianity and civilization is the thing needed for the suppression of race antagonism in the South; more so than the repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment.  And Mr. Cockran would have proved himself a more noble man had he given his splendid eloquence upon that particular theme; for these great principles and guides to civilization must continue to advance.

It was for the promotion of intelligence, of Christianity, of civilization and of these principles that the culture and cream of Northern society combated four long years against the flower of Southern aristocracy; that the learning and burning eloquence of Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson and Richard Yates; that the brilliant speeches of Thaddeus Stevens, James M. Ashley and many other statesmen of legal learning stood uncompromising until the Fifteenth Amendment became a law.  The spirit and force which was then against the Amendment becoming a law, were from Southern men.  The same spirit and force is in favor of its repeal now.  But it will not be repealed; it is there and there it will remain, there to fill the benighted soul with inspiration and hope.

If the Fifteenth Amendment was repealed the Southern spirit is yet ambitious and tyrannical; they would want to go further.  There is the Thirteenth Amendment and also the Fourteenth Amendment; both are in favor of civilization and citizenship.  If they would succeed in getting the Fifteenth Amendment repealed, they would of necessity contend for the repeal of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The Thirteenth Amendment is against slavery and involuntary servitude.  The Fourteenth Amendment recognizes “All persons born or naturalized” as “citizens of the United States,” and the Fifteenth Amendment gives them all the right to vote.  Therefore the three amendments are in harmony, and in favor of right and justice, of freedom and the advancement of citizenship.

It’s too late now for Mr. Cochran and other white men who look with disdain upon the colored race, to create enough sentiment and public opinion to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment.  They can never get the entire Negro race in the condition of servitude, – where they were forty years ago.  Freedom is too much appreciated and liberty ever sublime, and among the white race we have noble friends who are ever ready to give us help when we are inclined to help ourselves.  The best culture of the country has always been in favor of right, justice, intelligence, civilization and the advancement of Christianity.