A Generation Lost
From 1901 to 1929, not one black Representative served on Capitol Hill. In the Senate the wait would be even longer—86 years elapsed between 1881, when Blanche K. Bruce left the Senate, and 1967, when Edward Brooke of Massachusetts joined that chamber. And with a long line of Presidents ambivalent or hostile to the plight of African Americans, the parties in Congress deferred—sometimes scuttled—meaningful civil rights protections and the consideration of equal educational and economic opportunity. Southern politicians routinely and loudly invoked the threat of federal intervention in southern race relations to stir the electorate, but the specter amounted to little more than a harmless bogeyman. In sharp contrast to the active government of the Reconstruction Era, Congress adopted a hands-off approach to the issue of race in the South during the early decades of the 20th century, with few exceptions. A handful of persistent reformers such as Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri and George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts brought significant measures before the House. But congressional action consisted more of punitive threats and partisan maneuvering than of positive reaffirmations of the federal government’s commitment to the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments. Congressional ambivalence toward civil rights legislation derived from the general disinterest of the American public and many prevalent stereotypes. By the late 19th century, popular opinion turned apathetic toward black civil rights and supportive of returning unencumbered self-governance to Southerners. For many disaffected Northerners, segregation and disenfranchisement seemed viable—even rational—alternatives to mounting racial violence in the South. Federal inaction mirrored public complacency. In this social context, congressional inertia and a series of devastating Supreme Court rulings were “broadly reflective” of an American public that was not receptive to the concept of a multiracial society.96 As one historian concludes, the passivity of the federal government on the issue of disenfranchisement enabled and encouraged other southern states to follow the wholesale voting rights embargo in Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Carolinas.97
By the early 20th century, the Supreme Court had essentially eroded the legal basis for black equality and bolstered state efforts to stringently separate the races.98 Among the high court’s most devastating rulings were Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Williams v. Mississippi (1898), and Giles v. Harris (1903).99 In upholding the constitutionality of an 1890 Louisiana law that required rail companies to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races,” Plessy sanctioned the system of segregation then crystallizing in the South.100 In Williams, a black man convicted of murder by an all-white jury appealed the decision based on the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the jury’s decision, endorsing the disenfranchising laws that prevented black men from serving on juries.101 Several years later, Giles upheld the grandfather clause, one of the chief voter suppression methods used at southern constitutional conventions at the turn of the 20th century.
The decline of African-American civil rights coincided with one of the nation’s most fervent bursts of social reform. Spanning the 1890s through World War I, the Progressive Era was a period when a broad and diverse group of social reformers moved from local issues to national arenas and pushed for the modernization and democratization of American society.102 Progressives sought to advance public safety and welfare through professionalization and standardization across the spectrum of American life. Their efforts included regulating the quality and production of food, establishing laws for child labor and guidelines for industrial safety, and implementing conservation, temperance, and even experimental welfare programs. Progressives also ushered in political reforms, including direct primary elections, the popular election of U.S. Senators, and women’s suffrage.
Though Progressivism would seem like a democratizing force positioned against segregation, the movement, in fact, often complemented Jim Crow. The Progressives’ focus on the necessity for expertise in all fields provided an important justification for limiting the franchise to citizens they considered qualified to vote.103 Order and organization within a rapidly industrializing, sometimes chaotic, society lay at the heart of the Progressive impulse and often trumped democratic reform. “Whenever general anxieties rose across the nation, followers of the bureaucratic way had to turn for help to one of the several traditional techniques for achieving tighter cohesion,” observed historian Robert Weibe. “One of the time-honored devices was exclusion: draw a line around good society and dismiss the remainder.”104
Also at work were pervasive social theories that assumed the racial superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks.105 Unreconstructed southern spokesmen of white supremacy were not the only ones to subscribe to those theories, either; many of the most progressive minds of the era did so as well. Moreover, Progressives’ obsession with the scientific method spread “social Darwinism,” the pseudo-scientific theory popular among white supremacists that argued that so-called Anglo- Saxons had superior biological and evolutionary traits, and that inequality was the natural product of the “survival of the fittest.” The result was that white supremacist thinking had taken command of the nation’s politics, its society, and its intellectual core, the effect of which reinforced and emboldened proponents of segregation.106
African Americans participated as fully as possible in a society that had marginalized them. As George White once noted in a characteristically upbeat floor speech, “We are ramifying and stretching out as best we can in all departments of life, with a view to making ourselves good citizens.”107 These efforts were marked by significant milestones: the founding of advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, African-American contributions to World War I, and the black intellectual and artistic flowering of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Faced with a repressive system of segregation in the South, African Americans sought new opportunities outside the region, as an ever-stronger current of southern black migrants arrived in northern cities. This demographic shift and the nascent political activism of northern and urban African Americans portended change for the future.
96Michael J. Klarman, “Court, Congress, and Civil Rights,” in Congress and the Constitution, ed. Neal Devins and Keith E. Whittington (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005): 175.
97Richard B. Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973): 19.
98Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Race, Law, and American Society, 1607 to Present (New York: Routledge, 2007): 115–136, especially pages 118–122.
99Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896); Williams v. Mississippi 170 U.S. 213 (1898); Giles v. Harris 189 U.S. 475 (1903).
100For more on Plessy v. Ferguson, see Charles A. Lofgren, The Plessy Case: A Legal Historical Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
101The cases are discussed in detail in Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to The Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
102The rich literature on the Progressive movement includes Arthur S. Link and Richard L. McCormick, Progressivism (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1983); Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920; and Hays, The Response to Industrialism, 1885–1914. For a survey of the era, see John Milton Cooper, Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900–1920 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
103Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 260–261. In the South, Progressivism provided an intellectual lynchpin for efforts to eradicate party competition and to exclude black voters from political participation. Kousser writes, “Suffrage restriction was entirely consonant with the Progressive urge to rationalize the economic and political system, to substitute public for private agreements, to enact reforms which disarmed radical critics while actually strengthening the status quo. . . . How much more rationalized was the South after 1900! Virtually every elected officeholder was a white Democrat. . . . Where the Redeemers had had to count out opponents during and after elections, Progressives stopped them from running at all by disfranchising their potential followers.”
104Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920: 156.
105See Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; repr., Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992).
106For more on social Darwinism, see Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1996); Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought.
107Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (26 January 1899): 1125.