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 from a northern state. He was also the first African American to win election to the House since George White of North Carolina left office in 1901. 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.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr./tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_powell_adam_capitol_steps_lc_usz62_126515.xml Image courtesy of the 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 election of just a dozen more African Americans to Congress over the next 30 years underscored the power and pervasiveness of segregation in modern America. 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, African-American Members confronted a segregated institution in a segregated capital city. For these African-American Members, institutional racism, at turns sharply overt and insidiously subtle, erected one roadblock after another and influenced their agendas, legislative styles, and standing within Congress.

But by midcentury, 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 since Reconstruction, African Americans made substantive, not merely symbolic, gains within the institution. William L. Dawson of Illinois and Representative Powell became the first black lawmakers to chair standing congressional committees. Eight of these trailblazers would eventually lead one or more standing committees in the House.

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 disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Moreover, millions of African Americans took part in the Great Migration, the massive, decades-long exodus of black Southerners to northern and western cities in search of more opportunity and better 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—a sharp break with the uniformly Republican 19th-century African Americans in Congress. While New Deal reforms provided a modicum of economic relief, they more importantly offered the promise of fuller participation in American life. As a result, black Americans during the 1930s drifted away from the party of Lincoln and into a durable Democratic coalition built by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). With the exception of De Priest and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, all the black Members of Congress from this era were Democrats.

The burden of advocating black interests fell on the shoulders of just a few African-American congressional pioneers in the early decades of this era: 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.

Segregated Drinking Fountain/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_drinking_fountain_-April_1938_courthouse_lc_dig_fsa_8a03228.xml Image courtesy of the 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.
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 these Members formed a political vanguard that, in many respects, mirrored the experiences and trends reconfiguring black participation in modern American politics. Brooke—the first black Senator since Blanche Bruce of Mississippi during Reconstruction—entered office 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 frustrated their time as legislators. Too few to affect 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 careers of the African-American Members and Senators between the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement were far more than symbolic. Arguably for the first time, African Americans who sent Members to Capitol Hill were substantively rewarded with legislative efforts made expressly on their behalf. It was Adam Clayton Powell’s oft-repeated slogan that captured the essence of the collective political activism of African Americans across the country. “Keep the faith, baby,” he famously intoned, “spread it gently and walk together, children.”1

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