The 19th-century black Congressmen’s inability to rise within the congressional power structure circumscribed their legislative legacy and relegated them to a symbolic representation of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Amendments and northern victory in the Civil War. Yet they remained forceful advocates for the civil and political rights of their constituents, despite the obstacles they faced in and out of Congress. 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 the pioneer generation when the aged John Lynch—living in Republican Oscar De Priest’s Chicago district in 1928—advised the new 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.”131

The Supreme Court’s coup de grâce to the Civil Rights Bill marked the end of the federal government’s role as champion of freedmen. Over time, the government became impassive to the states’ diminution of blacks’ political and social status. Righteous Republicans excoriated southern Democrats for erecting an architecture of social and legal racial apartheid, while indignant southerners dismissed emblematic Republican racial initiatives as Janus-faced appeals to black voters. Both major parties regularly traded barbs about the “Negro issue” on the House and Senate floors. Thus, Congress shirked substantive legislative action to improve blacks’ quality of life, repeatedly refusing to pass additional provisions intended to safeguard their 14th and 15th 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.”132 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


131Franklin, “Introduction,” in Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch: xxx.

132Congressional Record, House, 48th Cong., 2nd sess. (17 December 1884): 317.