W. E. B. Du Bois insightfully observed that the most significant problem facing 20th-century America would be the “color line.” As historian Manning Marable has pointed out, that line, dating back to Reconstruction, was remarkably resilient, outlasting the truncated southern experiment in multiracialism, economic depressions, foreign wars, and massive migrations of African Americans from the South to the North. Congress’s general decision to avoid the issue of race relations and its failure to pass legislation to bolster civil rights in this era strongly confirms Marable’s assessment of the durability of racial prejudice and the pervasive nature of segregation in America. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Congress lagged behind the executive and the judicial branches—and sometimes behind popular will—when it came to issues of race and equality.174

Change would arise from a “Second Reconstruction”—a civil rights movement derived from the people and of the people, shaped by everyday African Americans operating largely outside political channels who convinced society of the need for change. By then African Americans would have allies and advocates within the federal government, such as Oscar De Priest, who was elected to the U.S. House from his Chicago-based district in 1928. In ending African Americans’ long exile from Congress, De Priest’s election infused millions with hope—and validated the power of organized black politics in northern cities.

Next Section: Keeping the Faith


174For an overview and analysis of the legal and social effects of the act, see William D. Araiza, “Voting Rights Act of 1965,” in Major Acts of Congress, vol. 3: 271–278; Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1984): 10; Klarman, “Court, Congress, and Civil Rights,” especially pages 177– 180.