Hiram Rhodes Revels arrival to the American Congress in 1870 has been ranked as one of the biggest ironies in American Politics. This is primarily because a few years before his election, his senatorial seat was held by a white slave owner. Upon his arrival at Capitol Hill, the Mississippi Republican faced sheer dissent from Democrat members who argued that the Constitution requires Senators to hold citizenship for at least nine years and hence Revels did not qualify since he had only been a citizen for four years with the 1866 Civil Rights Act and 14th Amendment. His election was the beginning of a rising influence of African Americans in congressional politics; a wave that has seen both its highs and lows. Congress as a result has undergone extensive changes in both its chambers. This first part of this series will give a general outline of various political periods while highlighting the current ripple affecting the 2018 Midterm Elections.
The Symbolic Era
1870 – 1887
This era in Black congressional politics symbolized the determination of radical Republicans to reconstruct the political landscape after slavery. During this reconstructive era, most of the key civil rights bills and constitutional amendments were enacted before any African American stepped in Congress. As a result, this period saw 17 Black Representatives all Republican, pass through its chambers showcasing the “triumph” of the Union. The pioneers had very diverse social and economic backgrounds with eight who were previously enslaved. Nonetheless, Black Representatives still faced exclusion from the internal power structure leaving them little room to exercise their political powers.
The Farewell Era
1887 – 1929
As the reconstruction era approached its end, ex-Confederates and their Democratic allies began building a segregated society through law and custom effectively eliminating Black Americans from public office and ending their political participation. The Farewell Era was shaped by these Jim Crow laws that saw only just 5 Black people serve as Members of Congress. These members encountered an institution that was very unfavorable to them. Their election to Congress was so rare that they were incapable of driving legislative agendas. Consequently, Congress responded to civil rights measures with outright hostility.
The Renaissance Era
Oscar De Priest’s election to Congress in 1929 has been described as the “ beginning to an end of African Americans’ long exile from Congress.” This is because he was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th Century. He was also the first Black member from the North. The exodus of Blacks to the North in escape of the harsh South Laws and lynchings heavily influenced this new congressional shift. As a result 13 Black people were elected to Congress most of whom represented northern constituencies that were majority – black districts. The New Deal reactivated black political participation by promising a “fuller” inclusion into American society bringing great numbers of African Americans into the Democratic Party. Furthermore, the participation of African Americans in World War II rekindled their political activism paving the way for the civil rights movement.
The Expansion Era
1971 – 2007
The civil rights activities of the 1960s opened up new avenues of political participation for millions of African Americans. As a result, a lot more Black People began running for office increasing their Congressional participation to 121 Black members during this era. Many of these members were elected from Southern States that had never seen Black representation. As the ranks of African Americans grew in Congress, the formal organization and coordination of Black efforts began taking shape with the aim of addressing issues and topics important to Black Americans, to advance both their position, power and influence in the country but also specifically in politics.
“ The Reclaiming Era”, 2008 –
This beginning of this Political Era was marked by President Obama’s election to the highest office on the land. His presidential campaign slogan, “yes we can” captured the general mood of this turning point in Black American political history but, it left an open ended answer to “what exactly is it that Black people can accomplish politically.” Rightly so, his election symbolized a political triumph for African Americans that pushed many more to run for public office than has been seen in previous eras. 2014 saw the highest recorded number of Black Congressional candidates with a stronger engagement of Black women as candidates. As we anticipate the upcoming midterm elections, this new political era continues to take form through what has been speculated as a historical political season for Black women.