“The Negroes’ Temporary Farewell,” 1887–1929
This era was defined by a long war on African-American participation in state and federal politics, waged by means of southern laws, Jim Crow segregation, and tacit federal assent. Between 1887 and 1901, just five black Members served in Congress and they encountered an institution that was inhospitable to their very presence and their every legislative goal. With poor committee assignments and few connections to the leadership, they were far from the center of power.11 Moreover, black Members of Congress were so rare that they were incapable of driving a legislative agenda.
Over the years, electing African Americans to Congress grew more difficult. Obstacles included violence, intimidation, and fraud by white supremacists; state and local disenfranchisement laws that denied increasing numbers of southern blacks the right to vote; and contested election challenges in Congress. Moreover, the legislative focus of the House and Senate shifted from the idealism of postwar Radical Republicans to the business interests of a rapidly industrializing nation. The efforts of southern conservatives benefitted from a general ambivalence toward protecting black civil rights, and they sought to roll back the protections African Americans had during Reconstruction. “I beg all true men to forget party and partisanship and right the great wrongs perpetrated upon humble and unoffending American citizens,” said Representative George W. Murray of South Carolina. “I declare that no class of people has ever been more misrepresented, slandered, and traduced than the black people of the South.”12
Though black Americans were excluded from Congress after 1901, larger social and historical forces portended future political opportunities for African Americans in the northern United States. As rural southern blacks moved to northern cities in search of better jobs and greater political freedoms during this period, they brought with them a history of political activism that changed the social and cultural dynamic of established black communities in places like Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded during this era, lobbied a hostile Congress on issues that were important to America’s black communities. This relocation to northern cities also contributed to the gradual realignment of African Americans from the Republican Party to the ranks of northern Democrats during the mid-20th century.
But without a single black Member to directly advocate for black interests, both major political parties in Congress refused to enact legislation to improve conditions for African Americans. Except for a few stalwart reformers, Congress responded to civil rights measures with ambivalence or outright hostility. By the end of this era, a corps of southern reactionaries in Congress used their seniority to control the levers of power when Democrats gained control of the House Chamber in 1931.
11For a discussion of the relative influence and attractiveness of individual House committees during this era, see Charles Steward III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (1992): 835–856.
12Congressional Record, House, 53rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 October 1893): 2161.