Pre-Congressional Experience

Numerous parallels can be drawn between the backgrounds of black Congressmen of the Reconstruction era and the 13 African Americans elected to Congress between 1929 and 1970. Many were born in the South, some into well-to-do circumstances. All were well educated, especially compared to the general population, and they drew from a growing reserve of political experience. Like most of their white congressional colleagues, 20th-century black Members of Congress tended to be selected from the elite of their communities. Each had bridged the gulf that separated African Americans from the opportunities enjoyed by better educated, more affluent whites. A leading political scientist noted that “in terms of education, income, and occupation, these black representatives resemble their white counterparts more than they do their African-American constituents.”2

African American Military Police/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_mp_motorcycle_Columbus_Georgia_ Apr_13_1942_nara_111SC134951.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Nearly one million African Americans served in World War II, most in the segregated U.S. Army. This 1942 photograph of a military policeman astride his motorcycle on a base in Columbus, Georgia, underscores the reality that Jim Crow practices prevalent in civilian life were also a part of military service.
Six of the black Members elected to Congress from 1929 to 1970 were born into racially segregated circumstances in the South.3 Some participated in the Great Migration to northern and western urban areas with their parents—or later, as young adults—attracted by better economic, social, and cultural opportunities.4 Born in Florence, Alabama, Oscar De Priest was seven when his family joined the 1878–1879 exodus of some 60,000 black families from the Lower Mississippi Valley to Kansas. He eventually moved to Chicago as a young man. His successor, Arthur Mitchell, was born in Lafayette, Alabama, and taught school in the South before attending college in the North and earning his law degree, eventually settling in Chicago in the 1920s—a decade when nearly 750,000 African Americans moved to the North. William Dawson, who succeeded Mitchell, was born in Albany, Georgia, and attended school in the South before moving to Chicago prior to World War I.

It was not until midcentury that black Members of Congress began to represent the cities where they were born and raised. These included Charles Diggs of Detroit (elected 1954), John Conyers Jr. of Detroit (1964), Louis Stokes of Cleveland (1968), William L. Clay Sr. of St. Louis (1968), Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn (1968), and George W. Collins of Chicago (1970).

Service in the U.S. Army played a formative role in the lives of a majority of these Members.5 For those born in the North, the military was a brusque introduction to the blatant segregation that existed elsewhere in America. Both Diggs and Stokes, who were stationed in the Deep South, recalled instances when restaurants refused to serve African-American soldiers, while white GIs dined with German prisoners of war. “That was the shock of recognition to me, that an enemy was more welcome than a black,” Diggs observed.6 That experience sparked Diggs’s political commitment to securing equal rights for African Americans.

Shortly after taking office in 1943, William Dawson, who had graduated from the country’s first black officers’ candidate school in 1917, declared, “I know what segregation in the army means . . . [it] is a damnable thing anywhere and I resent it.”7 As a Member of Congress during World War II, Dawson was a vocal proponent of integrating U.S. forces and, in 1944, when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson suggested that black soldiers were unfit for combat duty, Dawson demanded his removal.8

Edward Brooke, who served during World War II in Europe in the segregated 366th Combat Infantry Regiment and later in the 224th Engineering Battalion, recalled, “The prejudice Negro soldiers faced in the army was underscored by the friendliness of the Italians, who were colorblind with regard to race. . . . It was maddening to be given lectures on the evils of Nazi racial theories and then be told that we should not associate with white soldiers or white civilians.”9

After being drafted in 1953, five years after the armed services were integrated by presidential order, William Clay Sr. was stationed at Fort McClellan in Alabama—an army post that was still largely segregated, in Clay’s words, “with all the insobriety of the last Confederate general and the insolence of the last Confederate infantryman.” Clay organized a boycott against the segregated barbershop, a whites-only Post Exchange restaurant, and a segregated swimming pool. Later, Representative Diggs launched an investigation into base practices at Fort McClellan.10

NAACP Voter Registration Drive/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_NAACP_voter_registration_1948_lc_usz62_122260.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In an effort to bring more African Americans to the polls, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sponsored numerous voter registration drives such as this one at Antioch Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Like their Reconstruction predecessors, 20th-century black political pioneers in Congress were exceedingly well educated; they often eclipsed the educational level of the average American and far surpassed the educational level of many of their fellow African Americans.11 All graduated from high school. Only one, De Priest, did not receive at least a partial college education; seven studied law at elite historically black institutions and Ivy League schools. As laboratories of political protest and racial advancement, African-American churches played a central role in the larger civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but religious studies and service in the pulpit were not a prerequisite for black Members of Congress. Among the black Members in this section, only Adam Clayton Powell, who succeeded his father as pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, was trained in the ministry.

Political opportunities were more often secular for this generation of African Americans elected to Congress, and most during this period had experience in elective office before Capitol Hill. Five served on city councils in major urban areas, a result of the growing population and influence of black voters in northern cities: De Priest, Dawson, and Collins served in Chicago, Powell served in New York City, and Clay served in St. Louis. Diggs, Hawkins, and Chisholm served in state legislatures. Edward Brooke served two terms as Massachusetts attorney general, at the time becoming one of the highest-ranking African-American law enforcement officials in history.12 Only Stokes, Nix, and Conyers won election to the House without having held prior office, but all three had extensive local political experience.13  

Reflecting inroads made by the modern women’s rights movement, gender diversity became a reality for African Americans in Congress during this era.14 In 1968 Shirley Chisholm won a newly redistricted seat in Brooklyn, becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She ran against James Farmer, a well-known civil rights activist nominated as the Liberal-Republican candidate partly because he argued that the Democrats had for too long “thought they had [the black vote] in their pockets.” Chisholm and Farmer staked out similar economic and social positions. Their campaigns were nearly identical, but Farmer argued that women had been “in the driver’s seat” in black communities for too long and that the district needed “a man’s voice in Washington.”15 Chisholm prevailed, becoming an overnight symbol of crumbling barriers for African Americans in national political office. Within five years, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, Barbara Jordan of Texas, and Cardiss Collins of Illinois joined her in the House. “The black man must step forward,” Chisholm was fond of saying, “but that doesn’t mean that black women have to step back.”16

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2Carol Swain, “Changing Patterns of African-American Representation in Congress,” in The Atomistic Congress: An Interpretation of Congressional Change, ed. Allen D. Hertzke and Ronald M. Peters Jr. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1992): 107–140; quotation on page 118.

3Aside from De Priest, Mitchell, and Dawson, the group included Robert Nix, Augustus (Gus) Hawkins, and Edward Brooke.

4See the discussion about the Great Migration in the preceding contextual essay, “The Negroes’ Temporary Farewell.” For more on black migrations in the post-Reconstruction period and the 20th century, see Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (New York: Knopf, 1991); Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migrants to Kansas After Reconstruction (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986); James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) and Joe William Trotter, Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

5One served in World War I, four served in World War II, one saw combat in Korea, and another was drafted into service in the 1950s. Four were officers (Dawson, Brooke, Diggs, and Conyers); the rest were enlisted men. For an overview of the black experience in the military, see Bernard Nalty, Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military (New York: Free Press, 1986). For another assessment, see Robert W. Mullen, Blacks in America’s Wars: The Shift in Attitudes from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam (New York: Monad Press, 1973).

6“Former Congressman Diggs Enters Prison,” 24 July 1980, Associated Press.

7Harry McAlpin, “Dawson Takes Seat in House, Tells Plans,” 16 January 1943, Chicago Defender: 9; see also Denton J. Brooks, Jr., “Fame Brings Dawson Chance to Help Race,” 3 April 1943, Chicago Defender: 13.

8Denton J. Brooks, Jr., “Dawson Demands Stimson’s Removal,” 4 March 1944, Chicago Defender: 1.

9Edward Brooke, Bridging the Divide: My Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007): 33.

10William L. Clay, Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 2004): 16.

11“College Graduation Rate, by Sex, Nativity, and Race: 1940–1997” and “High School Non-Completion Rate, by Sex, Nativity, and Race: 1940–1997,” in Historical Statistics of the United States, vol. 2: Work and Welfare, ed. Susan Carter et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 469–470.

12Former U.S. Representative Robert Elliott, a South Carolina Republican, was elected state attorney general in the 1876 election that swept Democrats back into power. He was forced from office in May 1877 under pressure from the administration of Governor Wade Hampton. For more on this episode, see Peggy Lamson, The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973): 250–270.

13Stokes’s brother and political mentor, Carl, served in the Ohio legislature and became the first African-American mayor of a major city (Cleveland) in 1967. It was Carl who convinced Louis to run for a newly drawn majority-black district in Cleveland. Nix was appointed as a deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania and also served as a Democratic committeeman in Philadelphia for 26 years, eight as chairman. Conyers worked as a legislative aide to U.S. Representative John Dingell Jr. of Michigan, served as counsel to labor union locals, and received gubernatorial and presidential appointments before winning election to the House. Elected in 1964, Conyers held the seat for nearly 53 years before his resignation on December 5, 2017. He was the third longest-serving Member in the history of the House.

14For the impact of the women’s rights movement on Representatives, see Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007): 324–343.

15John Kifner, “G.O.P. Names James Farmer for Brooklyn Race for Congress,” 20 May 1968, New York Times: 34; John Kifner, “Farmer and Woman in Lively Bedford-Stuyvesant Race,” 26 October 1968, New York Times: 22. See also Shirley Washington, Outstanding Women in Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1995): 17. Farmer echoed the findings contained in a controversial report produced by sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan (later a U.S. Senator from New York) titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). The Moynihan Report, as it was later called, controversially suggested that a matriarchal structure in the black community undercut black men’s roles as authority figures.

16Susan Brownmiller, “This Is Fighting Shirley Chisholm,” 13 April 1969, New York Times: SM32; see also Fred L. Zimmerman, “Negroes in Congress: Black House Members Will Add to Their Ranks in the Next Few Years,” 22 October 1968, Wall Street Journal: 1.