Symposium to explore 15th Amendment history, implications for today

Contact: Zack Plair

STARKVILLE, Miss.--A symposium at Mississippi State University aims to explore the struggle of African American voting rights and highlight how those historical struggles affect today's society.

The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and Association at MSU will lead the Sept. 23-25 event titled "The Fifteenth Amendment: From U.S. Grant to Lyndon B. Johnson's Voting Rights Act." Early bird registration is $50 through Saturday [Aug. 1], and $75 from Aug. 2-Sept. 15. Registration is $100 starting Sept. 16 and still will be available on-site on Sept. 23.

MSU students may register for free; however, all registrants, including MSU students, must pay $30 to attend Wednesday's [Sept. 23] opening dinner at the Colvard Student Union and $40 to attend Friday evening's closing dinner at the Hunter Henry Center.

The symposium marks the 50th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which legally guaranteed voting rights to all American citizens regardless of race or any state laws that might otherwise prohibit it, said John Marszalek, executive director and managing editor of the MSU based U.S. Grant Collection. It also marks the 145th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment ratified during Grant's presidential administration that first allowed African Americans the right to vote.

Through the symposium, Marszalek said speakers and panelists will explore the history of the time period between the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act -- a period rife with Jim Crow laws, literacy tests for voting and poll taxes, especially in southern states -- and how those events shape today's laws.

Following the 15th Amendment, Marszalek said, the U.S. Supreme Court issued mixed decisions that often upheld what he called the "traditional" view of the time that individual states had the authority to grant voting rights.

"Because of that, from that time (1870) right up until the Voting Rights Act (1965), there was no guarantee," Marszalek said. "We know blacks (in some cases) were simply not allowed to vote, period."

Marszalek observed that it will be helpful to people to understand what's going on in contemporary America based on better understanding the history of African American voting rights.

"This is not an issue that was all taken care of in 1870 or in 1965. It's continued to be an issue, and you can't really understand what's going on today without understanding the past," he said.

Two published historians, Doug Egerton of LeMoyne College and Michael Fountroy of Howard University, will "bookend" the symposium, said Meg Henderson, senior library associate with the Grant collection, speaking at the opening and closing dinners, respectively. Egerton's speech will focus on the 15th Amendment and the early days of Reconstruction, while Fountroy will focus Friday evening [Sept. 25] on the Voting Rights Act and its effect on African American political participation.

"They will bring a lot of value to the overall symposium," she said.

Marszalek said he is most excited about Thursday morning's [Sept. 24] panel session in Griffis Hall featuring Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller, former Mississippi justice Fred Banks and retired Rhode Island Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, who also serves as president of the Grant Association. The panel will focus on how both the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act affect today's court decisions. Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter will moderate the panel.

Other speaker panels will follow in Griffis Hall on Thursday [Sept. 24] and Friday [Sept. 25].

"We believe this will show that history is important," Marszalek said. "It's not just this dead stuff 100 years ago. It's still affecting lives today, and I think that's crucial."

To register, or for a full schedule of symposium events, visit

Other sponsors for the event include the MSU Libraries, the offices of the President, Provost and Public Affairs, Shackouls Honors College, the African American studies program, the College of Arts and Sciences, the MSU political science department, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the National Park Service, the University Press of Mississippi and the office of the Starkville mayor.

"This symposium would not be possible without the support of our many departments at Mississippi State and the sponsoring organizations off campus," Marszalek said.

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