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

With his election to the U.S. House of Representatives from a Chicago district in 1928, Oscar De Priest of Illinois became the first African American to serve in Congress since George White of North Carolina left office in 1901 and the first elected from a northern state. But while De Priest’s victory symbolized renewed hope for African Americans struggling to regain a foothold in national politics, it was only the beginning of an arduous journey. The election of just a dozen more African Americans to Congress over the next 30 years was stark evidence of modern America’s pervasive segregation practices.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr./tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_powell_adam_capitol_steps_lc_usz62_126515.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, a charismatic and determined civil rights proponent in the U.S. House, served as a symbol of black political activism for millions of African Americans.
The new generation of black lawmakers embarked on a long, methodical institutional apprenticeship on Capitol Hill. Until the mid-1940s, only one black Member served at any given time; no more than two served simultaneously until 1955. Arriving in Washington, black Members confronted a segregated institution in a segregated capital city. Institutional racism, at turns sharply overt and cleverly subtle, provided a pivotal point for these African-American Members—influencing their agendas, legislative styles, and standing within Congress. Pioneers such as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, Charles C. Diggs, Jr., of Michigan, and Augustus (Gus) Hawkins of California participated in the civil rights debates in Congress and helped shape fundamental laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For the first time, African Americans made substantive, not merely symbolic, gains within the institution. William L. Dawson of Illinois and Representative Powell became the first blacks to chair standing congressional committees. Eight of these trailblazers would eventually lead one or more standing House committees.

Demographic shifts continued to transform the black political base during these decades, fundamentally recasting the background and experiences of black Members of Congress. None of the black Members from this period represented a southern district or state—a testament to the near-complete disfranchisement of southern blacks and a massive, decades-long migration of millions of African Americans employed in agricultural work in the South to urban areas in the North in search of industrial jobs. While their representation of northern cities alone would have distinguished this group of black Members from their Reconstruction-Era predecessors, they were also overwhelmingly Democratic, sharply contrasting with the uniformly Republican 19th-century African Americans in Congress. New Deal reforms providing a modicum of economic relief—and, more compellingly, the promise of fuller participation in American life—drew Black Americans away from the party of Lincoln and into a durable Democratic coalition built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the exception of De Priest and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, all the black Members of Congress from this era were Democrats.

Segregated Drinking Fountain/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_drinking_fountain_-April_1938_courthouse_lc_dig_fsa_8a03228.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Jim Crow reigned in North Carolina in the 1950s, where water fountains on the Halifax County courthouse lawn bore the signs of segregation.
An atomistic individualism characterized the careers of African-American congressional pioneers in the early decades of this era. The burden of advocating black interests fell on the shoulders of a few Representatives: De Priest and Arthur Mitchell of Illinois in the 1930s and Powell and Dawson in the 1940s, joined by Diggs and Robert Nix of Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Seven of the 13 individuals to serve in this era were not elected until the 1960s, just as the civil rights movement led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., crested and compelled the federal government to enact legislative reforms. Yet this cohort formed a political vanguard that, in many respects, mirrored the experiences and trends reconfiguring black participation in modern American politics. Brooke—the first black U.S. Senator since Blanche Bruce of Mississippi during Reconstruction—entered the upper chamber in 1967; two years later, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York became the first black woman to serve in Congress.

Like their Reconstruction-Era predecessors, these African-American Members endured racist slurs and prejudicial slights that complicated their development as legislators. Too few to effect change as a voting bloc within Congress, they acted either as public advocates commanding the spotlight on behalf of racial equality or as patient insiders who sought to deliver economic and political benefits to black constituents by accruing influence within the existing power structure. Yet the symbolism of this handful of black congressional careers initiated between the onset of the Great Depression and the social ferment of the late 1960s far exceeded the sum of its parts. Arguably for the first time, Black Americans who sent Members to Capitol Hill were substantively rewarded with legislative efforts made expressly on their behalf. “Keep the faith, baby,” Representative Powell famously intoned, “spread it gently and walk together, children.”1 His oft-repeated words captured the essence of African Americans’ growing collective political activism.

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1Thomas A. Johnson, “A Man of Many Roles,” 5 April 1972, New York Times: 1.