W. E. B. Du Bois insightfully observed that the dominant theme of 20th-century America would be the “color line.” As historian Manning Marable points out, that line, dating back to Reconstruction, was remarkably resilient, outlasting the southern experiment in multiracialism, economic depressions, foreign wars, and massive migrations of Black Americans from the South to the North. Congress’s management (or avoidance) of the issue of race relations in this era strongly confirms Marable’s assessment of the durability of racial prejudice and the pervasive nature of segregation in America. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Congress lagged behind the executive and the judicial branches—and sometimes behind popular will—in terms of racial issues.175
Change would arise from a “Second Reconstruction”—a civil rights movement derived from the people, not imposed on them—one shaped by everyday African Americans operating largely outside of political channels who would slowly convince society of the need for change. By then blacks would have allies and advocates within the federal government, such as Oscar De Priest, who was elected to the U.S. House from his Chicago-based district in 1928. In ending African Americans’ long exile from Congress, De Priest’s election would infuse millions with hope—and validate the power of organized black politics in northern cities.
175For an overview and analysis of the legal and social effects of the act, see William D. Araiza, “Voting Rights Act of 1965,” in Major Acts of Congress, Volume 3: 271–278. Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1984): 10; Klarman, “Court, Congress, and Civil Rights,” especially pages 177–180.