Keeping the Faith: African Americans Return to Congress, 1929–1970

In 1929 the long exile of African Americans from Congress ended when Chicago Congressman Oscar De Priest entered the House. In fact, all 13 African Americans elected during this era represented northern constituencies; all except Senator Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts were elected from majority-black, urban districts; and all except De Priest and Brooke were Democrats. By promising fuller participation in American society, the New Deal—the name for a series of major economic reforms spearheaded by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt—reactivated black political participation and brought greater numbers of African Americans into the Democratic Party.13 World War II also rekindled African-American political activism, and black contributions to the war effort helped pave the way for the postwar civil rights movement.

NAACP Dawson Flyer/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_intro_NAACP_flyer_dawson_1946_1960_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The third consecutive African American to serve from a South Chicago district, Representative William Dawson of Illinois participated in an NAACP annual meeting held at the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.
Black Members of Congress gradually won power during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, attaining more-desirable committee assignments and accruing the requisite seniority to gain leadership positions.14 This process coincided with the blossoming of the civil rights movement on the streets of the South.15 Although Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) spearheaded the campaign of nonviolent protest, everyday Americans from all walks of life formed the core of the movement. Throughout the nation, advocacy groups such as the NAACP complemented the efforts of black Members of Congress, playing an important role in making the civil rights movement a national and international concern.

While the SCLC, the NAACP, and black Members of Congress shared the same goals, they often diverged over tactics. Some black Members made substantive legislative achievements. For example, Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. crafted an amendment banning discrimination in federal contracts that was incorporated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other black Members, who preferred to work within the institution of Congress to effect change or who placed party imperatives ahead of black interests, were chided by civil rights advocates for being insufficiently committed to the cause.16 Perhaps the greatest consequence of the civil rights movement for black Members was its decisive effect on the early political development of many who entered the institution after 1970.

Throughout this period, African Americans constituted a small percentage of Congress. Even in the 91st Congress (1969–1971), with a record high 11 black Members, African Americans accounted for just 2 percent of the combined membership of the House and the Senate. But change was underway. Within a decade, the number of African Americans in Congress doubled. As their numbers gradually increased following the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black Members found strength in their growing size, creating a new organization to better exert their influence.

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13Nancy Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983): 227. Black voting loyalty underwent a fundamental shift during the 1930s, as voters left the Republican Party and joined the Democratic Party, but this development took place over decades. Scholars often point to several milestones to map that movement: the promise of the New Deal and the relatively moderate policies on race of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration; President Harry S. Truman’s continuation of racial progressivism, embodied by the desegregation of the military and the creation of the Civil Rights Commission; the appeal of President Truman and northern Democrats versus the racially conservative Dixiecrats in 1948; Barry Goldwater’s embrace of racial conservatism during the 1964 presidential campaign; passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act; and the trend, beginning in the 1960s and extending for several decades, of old-line white southern Democrats switching their allegiance to the GOP. See also Michael K. Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007): 41–55.

14Office of History and Preservation, Women in Congress, 1917–2006: 136–153, 324–343; Irwin Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 254–257.

15For more on this complex subject, see Taylor Branch’s landmark three-volume history, which uses Martin Luther King Jr. as a lens for viewing the movement and its many factions: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998); At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

16Even Powell, who did not shy from publicly confronting racism, had a strained relationship with the movement. According to his chief biographer, the charismatic Harlem Representative viewed civil rights leaders outside Congress as competition for the mantle he had grown accustomed to wearing as the leading spokesperson for black civil rights. See Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1991): 283–284; see also Branch, Pillar of Fire: 45–46, 95–96.