Black History Month: Remembering the First Civil Rights Bill and First Black U.S. Representative

February 04, 2021

Congressman Joseph Rainey

It is December of 1873 and the honorable representative, Joseph H. Rainey, a Republican from South Carolina, rose in the House of Representatives’ chamber in Washington to speak in favor of what came to be known as the Civil Rights Bill. Representative Beck, a Democrat from Kentucky, has just spoken in opposition to the Bill. Mr. Rainey speaks (taken exactly from his speech in the House):

“I can very well understand the opposition to this measure by gentlemen on the other side of the House, and especially of those who come from the South. They have a feeling against the negro in this country that I suppose will never die out. They have an antipathy against that race of people, because of their loyalty to this Government, and because at the very time when they were needed to show their manhood and valor they came forward in defense of the flag of the country and assisted in crushing out the rebellion. They, sir, would not give to the colored man the right to vote or the right to enjoy any of those immunities which are enjoyed by other citizens, if it had a tendency to make him feel his manhood and elevate him above the ordinary way of life. So long as he makes himself content with ordinary gifts, why it is all well; but when he aspires to be a man, when he seeks to have the rights accorded him that other citizens of the country enjoy, then he is asking too much, and such gentlemen as the gentleman from Kentucky are not willing to grant it. . . .

But we do want a law enacted that we may be recognized like other men in the country. Why is it that colored members of Congress cannot enjoy the same immunities that are accorded to white members? Why cannot we stop at hotels here without meeting objection? Why cannot we go into restaurants without being insulted? We are here enacting laws for the country and casting votes upon important questions; we have been sent here by the suffrages of the people, and why cannot we enjoy the same benefits that are accorded to our white colleagues on this floor? I say to you gentlemen, that this discrimination against the Negro race in this country is unjust, is unworthy of a high-minded people . . . .”

The Civil Rights Bill was later signed into law on March 3, 1875, although many of its elements were later struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. It may come as a surprise to you that laws directly related to Black political and social rights were discussed and passed into law following the Civil War.

Most Americans are familiar with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, but similar discussions were vibrant in America following the Civil War. In fact, following the Civil War, the U.S. Congress, in response to the emergence of Black Codes in most Southern states, enacted three amendments to the Constitution: the 13th Amendment, forever ending slavery; the 14th Amendment, which defined a citizen as any person born or naturalized in the country; and the 15th Amendment, which prohibited any government from denying American citizens the right to vote based on race, color or past condition of servitude. These Amendments empowered Black Americans to enter the political process and vote – and vote they did.

The First Black Congressman

Joseph H. Rainey was a former slave in South Carolina whose father had purchased his freedom (and his family’s freedom) prior to the Civil War. His father was a skilled barber in Charleston, and because of the oppression he faced as a freeman during the Civil War, he moved to Barbados with his family.

Although Joseph never received a formal education, he learned the skills of a barber from his father, who also introduced him to some of the great works of Western literature. When the war ended, Mr. Rainey returned to Charleston, where he joined the new South Carolina Republican party and became active in politics.

In 1870, he became the first Black person to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He spent more than eight years in the House and became known during that time as one of its most able orators. Representative Rainey served on numerous committees, and together with 20 other Black Americans from Southern states, they became effective advocates for the civil rights of Black Americans.

The Fight Against the Ku Klux Klan

Reconstruction policies successfully created the first biracial democracy in the South and perhaps in the world in the 1870s. Hundreds of thousands of former slaves came to the polls and cast their ballots for individuals focused on policies that would advance opportunities for all people.

They voted in the face of emerging terrorist violence, led by former Confederate officers and enlisted men who created the Ku Klux Klan. In the face of the new protections provided to Black Americans through the Constitution and its new amendments, the Klan used violence in an attempt to prevent them from voting and asserting their newly found freedoms.

What the Confederates lost on the battlefield they sought to regain through terrorist activity. They might have been successful had it not been for the aggressive prosecution of the Klan by one of freedom’s greatest advocates, President Ulysses S. Grant, who used the American military to hunt down Klan leaders and bring them to justice.

Genuine American Heroes

In the face of violence and anger, Representative Rainey and dozens of other Black American leaders braved the challenges to serve their communities. They helped pass significant legislation, establish newly developed Civil and political rights, and created educational systems and hope for the future of Black citizens. They are genuine American heroes whose stories exemplify courage and vision.

Following one of the most controversial presidential elections in American history, Congress faced an electoral controversy. The initial count of the vote showed Democrat Samuel B. Tilden of New York just one vote short of victory in the presidential election. In three states – South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana – the election outcomes were unclear, and each state sent two sets of electors, one for Tilden and one for Hayes, to Congress to be counted. (In a very complex story in the state of Oregon, Hayes won the vote but the Democratic governor eliminated one of the Republican electors on a technicality and placed a Democrat in his place).

The development led to a constitutional crisis that Congress resolved by creating a commission that would decide which electoral votes to count. The commission voted 8 to 7 to count the Hayes votes, and he became president by one vote, 185 to 184. President Hayes strongly supported the Black American’s right to vote and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and he called on the Southern states to protect all American citizens.

The North, weary of the long war and Reconstruction period, no longer had the commitment to use the military to protect citizens in all states and the South slowly, over the next 20 years, reimposed Black Codes (Jim Crow), ending African-American civil rights and eliminating their right to vote (a complex story of manipulation that one should also understand)

In fact, in the late 1870s, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans exercised the right to vote. By 1900, fewer than 1,000 still were able to go to the polls. Through violence, intimidation and eventually using the “law,” Southern white leaders eliminated one of the most important movements for freedom in American history.

Learning from Our Failures

February is Black History Month, and it is important to more fully understand the history of Black Americans in our shared culture. But more important than recognizing such stories once a year, we must contend that the broader story of Black Americans must be a part of our common memory.

There is much to condemn about the human past, but the more important point is to learn from human failure and also from the heights of human vision. A recent study by Blum and Poole noted that the religious currents of the 19th century that fueled earlier important reforms gave way in the 1870s to an emphasis on North-South reconciliation and moral discipline instead of Black liberation.

To put it another way, our forebears, when given the chance to choose to provide support to Representative Rainey and his colleagues, chose the status quo over a kingdom vision that may have pushed America to a new more just and inclusive nation. Today, we all live with the consequences of the choices of those who came before us. May our actions today produce a better world for those who follow us.