Representative Arthur Mitchell of Illinois Defeats Incumbent Oscar De Priest
November 06, 1934
Image courtesy of Library of CongressArthur Mitchell was the first African-American Democrat to serve in Congress. Elected in 1934, Mitchell’s success reflected a trend towards voting for the Democratic Party among northern blacks.
On this date, Arthur Mitchell defeated Oscar De Priest in the general election for the First District of Illinois to become the first African-American Democrat elected to Congress. De Priest, the first Black American elected to Congress in the 20th century, faced a formidable challenge from Mitchell, a former Republican lieutenant in Chicago’s political machine who switched to the Democratic Party and became an ardent supporter of the New Deal. The contest between Mitchell and Oscar De Priest garnered national attention. Mitchell turned the contest against the venerable Republican Representative into a referendum on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public-relief policies, criticizing De Priest’s refusal to vote for emergency federal aid to the poor. Capitalizing on growing support for the New Deal, Mitchell orchestrated an aggressive campaign that forced De Priest to defend the Republican Party. Mitchell’s strategy paid off at the polls where he earned 53 percent to De Priest’s 47 percent. “I congratulate you as [the] first Negro Democratic congressman,” De Priest told his opponent after the election. The De Priest–Mitchell contest reflected a larger political trend occurring in Chicago and other northern cities: African Americans were changing their allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party because of dissatisfaction with the GOP response to the plight of Black Americans during the Depression. Shortly after taking his seat in the 74th Congress (1935–1937), Mitchell reiterated one of his campaign promises: “What I am interested in is to help this grand President of ours feed the hungry and clothe the naked and provide work for the idle of every race and creed.”