African Americans had never been elected to Congress in high enough numbers to influence legislation, and their increased isolation in the Jim Crow Era further eroded their ability to reach their legislative goals. They were often denied the opportunity to speak in the well of the House; their prepared remarks were relegated to the Congressional Record Appendix, which contained speeches for which no time was allotted on the House Floor. Yet all five black Representatives from this era attempted to defend the diminishing rights of their black constituencies, considering themselves "surrogate" Representatives for the entire U.S. black population.56 The only African American in Congress from 1897 to 1901, George White elicited laughter from the House Gallery when he said, "I am easily the leader of one thing, and that is the black phalanx on this floor. I have no rival and will not be disturbed in that leadership."57 Black Members' committee assignments of this era also reflected their relative lack of power.
Monetary, Economic, and Foreign Policy Issues
Black Members were typically relegated to weighing in on the largely commercial legislation that dominated Congress throughout the late 19th century, adjusting their legislative strategies to meet the new GOP focus on economic and foreign policy issues. The five black Members who served during the 1890s joined in debates on the coinage of silver and imperialism, typically voting according to sectional or partisan loyalties. However, they found ways to weave these contemporary issues into a dialogue about the continuing deterioration of civil rights in the South.
When an economic panic gripped the agrarian United States in the late 1880s, rural Members of Congress supported the coinage of silver. Circulating silver would incite inflation and raise commodity prices, creating an economic boon for the agricultural economy. Joined by western Members—whose states provided much of the precious metal—rural southern Representatives of both parties also supported the circulation of silver bullion to weather the boom-and-bust economy. GOP leaders, centered in the industrial northeast and the Midwest, however, typically upheld the gold standard (backing currency entirely with gold bullion), to create a more stable economy. The issue divided Members along sectional, partisan, and rural-versus-urban lines.59
In the 1880s and the 1890s, U.S. officials—influenced by business interests and geostrategic arguments advanced by advocates such as Alfred Thayer Mahan—turned their focus to acquiring overseas possessions. Industrialists envied the wealth of natural resources available in the colonized world. Also, Americans wished to guard the "New World" from Europeans, following the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which stipulated that the United States had compelling reasons to protect the Western Hemisphere from foreign encroachments. However, the acquisition of Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines in the late 1890s involved the absorption of eight million residents from these countries, renewing discussions on race. Imperialists' approaches to the "white man's burden" in these new colonies often echoed those of southern segregationists: They believed the white race was inherently superior to colonized peoples and sought to limit their political participation.62 It can certainly be argued that U.S. racial attitudes were projected abroad onto imperialistic adventures of the era—providing both rhetoric and rationale for empire-building. But efforts to undertake colonizing projects abroad (and internal perceptions of those efforts) also strengthened racist views at home, both in the North and the South.63
Serving during the high tide of U.S. colonial acquisitions in the 56th and 57th Congresses (1897–1901), George White—the lone African American in Congress—supported U.S. imperialist acquisitiveness. He endorsed the Spanish–American War and voted to annex Cuba and the Philippines. However, White expressed concern about the treatment of colonized populations. He purposely avoided a vote on the annexation of Hawaii to protest the treatment of Native Hawaiians and later submitted (unsuccessful) legislation for their protection. He also used American paternalism toward colonized peoples to garner support for his ultimately unsuccessful anti-lynching legislation and related the issue of imperialism to inequities at home: "Recognize your citizens at home, recognize those at your door, give them the encouragement, give them rights that they are justly entitled to, and then take hold of the people of Cuba and establish a stable and fixed government there that wisdom predicated, which justice may dictate," White told his House colleagues. "Take hold of the Philippine Islands, take hold of the Hawaiian Islands, there let the Christian civilization go out and magnify and make happy those poor, half-civilized people; and then the black man, the white man—yes, all the riff-raff of the earth that are coming to our shores—will rejoice with you in that we have done God's service and done that which will elevate us in the eyes of the world."64 White's complex and often contradictory approach to imperialism demonstrated the difficulty of balancing his plea for black civil rights with imperialist goals.
Federal Elections Bill
When Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland won the presidential campaign in 1884, the Republican Party lost control of the White House for the first time since 1860. GOP reformers were quick to blame disfranchisement of black (and mostly Republican) voters in the South for the devastating electoral loss. Republican Senators William Chandler of New Hampshire and John Sherman of Ohio—both staunch reformers with GOP careers predating the Civil War—led an attempt to roll back disfranchisement. Chandler began amassing evidence of election fraud in the South after the 1884 election, which led one African–American committee witness to call him "the greatest man in the United States."65 Sherman introduced a bill to enact federal control over national elections in January 1889; however, the bill had no chance of passing the 50th Congress (1887–1889). Republicans held a slim, two-person majority in the Senate and Democrats controlled the House. Nevertheless, the Senators captured the attention of other Republicans who, pushed and pulled by the monetary and humanitarian factions of the party, began to realize the political expedience of reasserting federal election law in the South.
In 1888, Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison added election reform to his campaign platform. Born in Ohio and hailing from Indiana, Harrison was a Civil War veteran who had declared in 1876 that the U.S. government had "an obligation solemn as a covenant with God to save [freedmen] from the dastardly outrages that their rebel masters are committing upon them in the South." During his campaign, he refused to "purchase the Presidency by a compact of silence" regarding black voting rights in the South.66 Riding the coattails of Harrison's victory, the Republican Party gained a majority in both houses for the first time in eight years at the start of the 51st Congress. Led by the influential Massachusetts duo of Representative Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator George Hoar, the GOP made one last attempt at reinforcing the 15th Amendment and combating disfranchisement in the South.
Lodge submitted the Federal Elections Bill to the House on June 14, 1890. The legislation was a conglomerate of several measures, including Hoar's and those of other House and Senate Members. Exceeding 70 pages, the bill allowed a small number of constituents in any given precinct to petition a federal judge to take charge of a national election rather than leaving the process in the hands of local—and, in the South, usually Democratic—officials. The federal government also would appoint supervisors to oversee all phases of federal elections, from voter registration to the certification of the results. The bill reaffirmed the President's prerogative to send federal troops to monitor violent or chaotic elections. On June 26, Lodge opened the debate to support the bill with what one historian describes as a "racial sermon."68 "The first step…toward the settlement of the negro problem and toward the elevation and protection of the race is to take it out of national party politics," Lodge asserted. "This can be done in but one way. The United States must extend to every citizen equal rights." Addressing southern Congressmen's tendency to call forth the specter of "negro domination," he continued, "This bitter appeal to race supremacy, which is always ringing in our ears, is made a convenient stalking horse to defraud white men as well as black men their rights. It is an evil which must be dealt with, and if we fail to deal with it we shall suffer for our failure."69 Opponents in the South soon labeled the Federal Elections Bill the "Force Bill" and recalled the chaos caused by federal regulation during the Reconstruction Era. "If you could only realize as we do how this measure is destined to retard our progress, destroy confidence, impair development, engender strife, revive bitterness, relegate us to the dark and deplorable conditions of reconstruction, and produce only evil," Representative Samuel Lanham of Texas declared.70
The Federal Elections Bill barely passed the House on July 2, 1890, 155 to 149. It then languished in the Senate, where the debate over circulating silver bullion eventually killed it. Western Republicans dismissed the bill, hoping the coinage of silver—a policy beneficial to their mining states—would come before the Senate first. When the Senate finally took up the Federal Elections Bill, angry Silver Republicans joined Democrats in a week-long filibuster that defeated the legislation in February 1891. Most notably, Nevada Senator William Stewart—a principal architect of the 15th Amendment and the floor manager during debate on the Ku Klux Klan bills—joined the filibuster.
In many ways, the GOP reformers' efforts paralleled those of the Radical Republicans, who steered the 1875 Civil Rights Bill through Congress. Both pieces of legislation were carefully whittled into the form that was deemed most palatable to the competing factions of the Republican Party. Both bills were partially blamed for and threatened by GOP losses in midterm elections. Much as in the 1874 elections, the Republican Party was devastated in 1890. In the House, the 17-seat majority in the 51st Congress gave way to a whopping 152-seat deficit in the 52nd Congress (1891–1893). Though Senate Republicans maintained their majority, they lost four seats.
Several other obstacles doomed the passage of the Federal Elections Bill. Foremost, it landed low on the congressional priority list. Republican leaders in both chambers saw to it that commercial legislation was dispensed with before taking up the Lodge Bill. Congress spent half of the first session debating the McKinley Tariff—which raised duties on imports almost 50 percent to protect domestic agricultural and industrial products—before taking up the Federal Elections Bill. Once debate commenced, few Members put a human face on the legislation, despite ample evidence of black suffering in the South. Lodge was one of the few supporters of the bill who emphasized African-American rights. In contrast to the debate on the Civil Rights Bill, which was permeated by talk of "equality" and "humanity," debate on the Federal Elections Bill emphasized the need to defend "republicanism"—abstractly defined as the "right to vote."71
Finally, in contrast to the firsthand testimony of black Members during the Civil Rights Bill debate in 1874 and 1875, black Representatives had very little input on the 1890 Federal Elections Bill. Henry Cheatham, the only black Member serving in the House while that chamber considered the bill, never gave a speech on the topic. Thomas Miller and John Langston, who joined Cheatham in the next session after winning their contested election cases, could only encourage Senate consideration of the bill. "It does not matter how black we are; it does not matter how ignorant we are; it does not matter what our race may be," Langston declared in January 1891. "The question presented here to-day under our amended Constitution…is shall every freeman, shall every American citizen, shall every American elector…be permitted to wield a free ballot?"72 Miller noted that southern blacks lacked necessities whose absence overshadowed their lack of voting rights. "Ah, gentlemen," he lamented, "what we need in this land is not so many [political] offices. Offices are only emblems of what we need and what we ought to have. We need protection at home in our rights, the chiefest of which is the right to live."73
Early Congressional Anti-Lynching Campaign
As the lone black Member at the dawn of the 20th century, Representative George White defended the "right to live" in his campaign for anti-lynching legislation. Lynching—public execution by hanging or shooting, sometimes involving torture—was a particularly racially tinged form of violence that had long been a scourge of American society. Lynch mobs consisted of a handful of vigilantes, or sometimes hundreds, ranging from criminals and thugs to the leading citizens and favorite sons of local communities. Occasionally, lynchings were attended by throngs of onlookers. A disproportionate number of the victims were black men. Particularly in the South, they were accused of rape and other sexual offenses against white women (even though the vast majority of victims already under arrest were not charged with any crime of sexual violence).74 Accurate figures are impossible to obtain, but from 1882, when reliable statistics first became available, to the early 1930s, approximately 3,400 African Americans were lynched.75
Representative White called for an end to the barbarism of lynching in the South on January 20, 1900, when he introduced H.R. 6963, the first federal anti-lynching bill "for the protection of all citizens of the United States against mob violence."76 A month later, during general debate on American territorial expansion in the Caribbean and Pacific, White defended his bill on the House Floor. He provided graphic accounts of lynching atrocities and a stern rebuttal to derogatory comments made on the House and Senate floors against blacks. White noted that his goal in seeking to require lynching cases to be tried in federal courts was "that the National Government may have jurisdiction over this species of crime." But conditions in the South were such that they provoked serious questions not only about regional race relations but also about national and international policy. "Should not a nation be just to all her citizens, protect them alike in all their rights, on every foot of her soil," White asked rhetorically, "in a word, show herself capable of governing all within her domain before she undertakes to exercise sovereign authority over those of a foreign land—with foreign notions and habits not at all in harmony with our American system of government? Or, to be more explicit, should not charity first begin at home?"77 The legislation garnered no support from the William McKinley administration, stirred little enthusiasm in the House, and was met with ambivalence by an American public with scant knowledge of the magnitude of the lynching problem. White's bill died in the Judiciary Committee at the close of the 56th Congress in 1901.
In addition to campaigning for anti-lynching legislation, George White challenged the House to punish southern states for disfranchising blacks by calling for a reduction in their congressional delegations. White's appeal in 1899 that southern delegations to Congress ought to be limited to "the benefit of the votes that are allowed to be cast in their representation" initially fell on unsympathetic ears, despite his declaration, "It is a question that this House must deal with some time, sooner or later."78 Derived from Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, reduction legislation required Congress to penalize states that sought to disqualify eligible voters by subtracting the number of disfranchised voters from the population count used to determine the number of seats each state was allotted in the House. At the high tide of Radical Republican rule in the House, the chamber passed a measure after the 1870 Census that required Congress to enforce that provision. Section 6 of the Apportionment Act of February 2, 1872, mandated that if any state denied or abridged the voting rights of eligible male inhabitants over the age of 21, "the number of Representatives apportioned in this act to such State shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of male citizens shall have to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state." 79
On January 7, 1901, Representative Crumpacker delivered a lengthy floor speech emphasizing Congress's obligation to uphold the 14th Amendment. He urged his colleagues not to let their "coercive power" be "abrogated by passive nullification" of the Constitution. Opposing southern claims that the 15th Amendment superseded the 14th, Crumpacker declared both "active and operative" and complementary. "No state may disfranchise citizens on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, but they may disfranchise on any other account," Crumpacker said, taking note of state constitutional provisions for poll taxes and literacy tests. "But, sir, if they restrict the right of suffrage of male citizens 21 years of age by raising the age limit, by educational laws, by property qualifications, or by any other method within their constitutional authority, except for crime, the basis of representation [of those states in Congress] must be reduced accordingly." Crumpacker hoped to avoid a protracted struggle with southern Members over voting statistics. He proposed to reduce representation based on illiteracy rates for both whites and blacks, assuming illiterates would fail education tests that accompanied disfranchisement plans.82 Representative George White praised Crumpacker as an exemplar "who has taken occasion to stand up in his place as a man, and has said a word in defense" of African Americans.83 The House, which eventually voted to expand its membership, devoted considerable attention to Crumpacker's plan before voting—136 to 94—to table further consideration.84
The reduction debate flared again in early 1902, after Charles Dick of Ohio proposed to instruct the House Rules Committee to investigate the relationship between disfranchising states' congressional representation and the voting figures for congressional elections.85 Southerners responded venomously. Thomas Spight of Mississippi, a Confederate veteran turned newspaper publisher, baldly declared that disfranchisement's "leading purpose was to eliminate the negro from the political equation." He added that the South would prefer to have no congressional representation if it could avoid a "return again to the state of affairs existing in the reconstruction period."86 Nevertheless, in a party line vote, the Republican-dominated House Rules Committee supported the Dick proposal in March 1902. However, Representative Oscar Underwood of Alabama, who had just spearheaded his state's 1901 constitutional convention disfranchising virtually all blacks, successfully sabotaged the proposed investigation by exploiting a Republican division regarding a sugar tariff. Insurgent Republicans opposed leadership efforts to strike the elimination of a tariff differential amendment and thus retain a high tariff. By joining Midwestern and insurgent Republicans on an economic issue to thwart corrective federal legislation, Democrats replayed their strategy for subverting the Federal Elections Bill of 1890. In delivering the Democratic Caucus vote to these Republicans, Underwood secured their promise to vote down the Rules Committee investigation after it came to the floor.87
56For a discussion of surrogate representation using modern examples, see Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’ ” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.
57Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (22 April 1898): 4194.
58Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (1992): 845–846. Cheatham was ranked fifth out of six minority members of the Agriculture Committee in the 52nd Congress (1891–1893); White was ranked last out of 11 majority members on the Agriculture Committee in the 55th Congress (1897–1899).
59For a thorough discussion of U.S. monetary policy in the late 19th century, see Irwin Unger, The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865–1880 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964); Alan Weinstein, Prelude to Populism: Origins of the Silver Issue, 1867–1878 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970); Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,1963).
60Congressional Record, House, 52nd Cong., 1st sess. (13 July 1892): 6133. The rest of the Republicans voting in favor of the bill were from silver-mining states.
61Congressional Record, House, 53rd Cong., 1st sess. (24 August 1893): 859.
62Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: 72–74.
63Recent historical literature suggests that racism at home cooled enthusiasm for imperialism abroad. One historian argues that segregationists often opposed imperialists because they were unwilling to incorporate foreign, dark-skinned citizens. See Eric T. Love, Race Over Empire: Racism and U.S. Imperialism, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
64Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 3rd sess. (26 January 1899): 1126.
65Quoted in Upchurch, Legislating Racism: 86.
66Charles W. Calhoun, Benjamin Harrison (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005): 33, 55.
67Upchurch, Legislating Racism: 94.
69Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 1st sess. (26 June 1890): 6544.
70Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 1st sess. (28 June 1890): 6728.
71Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic: 242–243.
72Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 2nd sess. (16 January 1891): 1480–1481.
73Congressional Record, House, 51st Cong., 2nd sess. (12 January 1891): 1216.
74See W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); see also Brundage’s Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). For a classic study of lynching, see NAACP secretary Walter White’s, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001; reprint of 1929 Knopf edition).
75Susan Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States: Government and International Relations 5 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006): 252–255. While this figure represents the most recent scholarship available, it almost certainly underrepresents the actual number of white-on-black lynchings in the South. Figures exist for 10 of the original Confederate states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). Figures for Texas are not included in this analysis. Statistics for Kentucky, a border state, are included in this figure. See also Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
76Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 1st sess. (20 January 1900): 1021.
77Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 1st sess. (23 February 1900): 2151–2154; quotations on pages 2153, 2151.
78Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 3rd sess. (26 January 1899): 1125. See also Justesen, George Henry White: 263.
79House of Representatives, 56th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 December 1900), report no. 2130: 15. This document, which contained a section entitled “History of Apportionment,” accompanied H.R. 12740 and was generated by the Select Committee on the Twelfth Census. Later efforts to enforce that provision, following the wave of state constitutional conventions that drafted statutes to eliminate black voters, were pursued on several occasions but were feeble, halting and, ultimately, ineffective. The enforcement section was struck and never reinserted into subsequent decennial apportionment bills.
80Charles W. Eagles, Democracy Delayed: Congressional Reapportionment and Urban–Rural Conflict in the 1920s (Athens: The University Georgia Press, 1990): especially pages 21–31.
81House of Representatives, 55th Cong., 3rd sess. (3 March 1899), report no. 2354: 1–2.
82Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 January 1901): 67–75; Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 228–229. States with additional poll taxes and property exclusions would potentially lose even more seats.
83Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 2nd sess. (8 January 1901): 737.
85Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 238–239.
86Congressional Record, House, 58th Cong., 2nd sess. (27 January 1904): 1276. Quotation in Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 240.
87“A Bomb in Caucus: Republican Proposition to Southern Democrats,” 18 April 1902, Washington Post: 1; Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 239–240. Subsequent reduction legislation also failed. In 1903, Crumpacker assumed the chairmanship of the House Committee on the Census, affording him a prime perch from which to push for enforcement of the 14th Amendment. During the 59th Congress (1905–1907), Crumpacker, working with former Speaker of the House Joseph Keifer of Ohio, introduced a measure to reduce southern representation by 37 House seats. The bill never made it to the floor for a vote. See Congressional Record, House, 59th Cong., 1st sess. (16 March 1906): 3885–3894; “Crusade Against South as Result of Campaign for ‘Disfranchisement,’” 27 February 1906, Atlanta Constitution: 1; “Gen. Keifer’s New Reconstruction,” 3 March 1906, Washington Post: 6; “Disfranchisement and Reapportionment,” 4 March 1906, Atlanta Constitution: C4. In May 1908, Crumpacker managed to attach a reduction rider to a campaign contribution reform bill. The amended measure passed the House, despite condemnations from southern Members, but the campaign bill and its rider died quietly in the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections at the end of the 60th Congress (1907–1909). See Congressional Record, House, 60th Cong., 1st sess. (22 May 1908): 6763–6768; “Minority Is Hard Hit: House Republicans pass the Crumpacker Bill,” 23 May 1908, Washington Post: 4. For Williams’s quotation, see “House Upholds Stroke at South by Crumpacker,” 23 May 1908, Atlanta Constitution: 1. For southern reaction, see “The Crumpacker Menace,” 24 May 1908, Atlanta Constitution: A4; and “Fooling With Dynamite,” 27 May 1908, Atlanta Constitution: 6.