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Historical Highlights

South Carolina Representative Robert Elliott’s Rousing Oratory

January 06, 1874
South Carolina Representative Robert Elliott’s Rousing Oratory Image courtesy of Library of Congress Robert Elliott of South Carolina served only three years in the U.S. House of Representatives, but rose to the rank of speaker of the South Carolina state house of representatives.
On this date, Representative Robert Elliott of South Carolina, one of seven African-American Members of the 43rd Congress (1873–1875), delivered his famous rebuttal to an address made by U.S. Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the former Vice President of the Confederacy. British born, well-educated, and an excellent orator, the 31-year-old Elliott argued articulately in favor of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill. The legislation sought to eliminate racial discrimination in public transportation, in public accommodations, and in schools. Before a packed House, Elliott stated his complete support for universal civil rights. “I regret, sir, that the dark hue of my skin may lend a color to the imputation that I am controlled by motives personal to myself in my advocacy of this great measure of national justice,” he declared. “The motive that impels me is restricted to no such narrow boundary, but is as broad as your Constitution. I advocate it, sir, because it is right.” Elliott’s youthful appearance and the “harmony of his delivery,” stood in sharp contrast to the elderly Stephens, who, confined to a wheelchair, had dryly read a prepared speech opposing the bill. Though weakened by amendments, the bill eventually passed the House on February 4, 1875. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 became law on March 1, 1875.

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