Facing persistent discriminatory headwinds in Congress, the 17 African-American Representatives and Senators who served in the first decades after the Civil War struggled to attain power and influence the legislative process. Yet they remained forceful advocates for the civil and political rights of their constituents, despite the obstacles they faced in Congress and the outright violence they confronted back home. Their role as surrogate representatives for millions of newly freed African Americans provided a representational blueprint for black Members in future generations. The mantle of advocacy figuratively passed from this generation of pioneering African-American legislators when the aged John Lynch—living in Republican Oscar De Priest’s Chicago district in 1928—advised De Priest, then a newly elected Member of Congress, to place the interests of the African-American community before even partisan loyalty. “We need a man who will have the courage to attack not only his political opponents,” he told De Priest, “but those within his own party who fail to fight unfair legislation directed toward people of color.”154

The Supreme Court’s decision to strip the Civil Rights Act of its powers marked the end of the federal government’s role as a champion of the millions of formerly enslaved men and women living in the South. Rather quickly, the government became impassive to the efforts by southern states to dilute the political power and restrict the social status their African-American citizens. On Capitol Hill, righteous Republicans excoriated southern Democrats for erecting an architecture of social and legal racial apartheid. Indignant Southerners, meanwhile, dismissed emblematic Republican initiatives on racial equality as Janus-faced appeals to black voters. As a result, Congress avoided substantive legislative action to improve the quality of life for millions of African Americans, repeatedly refusing to pass additional provisions intended to safeguard their Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. Recognizing that a new era had dawned, James O’Hara concluded, “It is too late for the American Congress to legislate on the question of color.”155 What would soon develop was a rigid system of segregation codified in state law and tacitly sanctioned by the federal government.

Next Section: The Negroes' Temporary Farewell


154Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: xxx.

155Congressional Record, House, 48th Cong., 2nd sess. (17 December 1884): 317.