April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
Since the Civil War the nation has sent just four African-Americans to the Senate. Why?
Here we are with only nine months left in which our computers have to learn that two-digit numbers signifying a year must be assumed to follow a 20 and not a 19. Otherwise they will shut down the world. My apprehension is lightened by a certain Luddite smugness—so much for smart machines! But while thinking about this and related issues, it occurs to me that a minor note of interest about the November 1998 election has been overlooked. The 106th Congress, chosen then and sitting now, will be the last to serve in the twentieth century.
That in turn gives a certain additional weight to one of the results in my home state of Illinois. The senior senator, Carol Moseley-Braun, elected in 1992, was defeated in her bid for a second term. She was widely recognized as the first African-American woman to serve in that body. Fewer people know that she was only the second black senator elected since 1900. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the other, was elected in 1966 and served until the close of 1978. And carrying it back further, there were also just two in the nineteenth century, one of them, Hiram Revels, serving out a term of just over a year (1870-71) and the other, Blanche K. Bruce, completing six years in office (1875-81). Both men came from Mississippi and, like all senators until 1913, were chosen by the state legislature.
This seems a dismaying reflection on just how “representative” our institutions have been, but rather than preach the obvious, I would prefer to look at these four senatorial careers in the context of their times and offer a few provisional conclusions and risky forecasts. We begin chronologically with Senator Revels.
Revels and Bruce both were products of Reconstruction’s experiment in building a black-and-white Republican party in the South. Under laws passed in 1867, the occupied “Rebel” states, in order to regain their rights in the Union, had to create and ratify new state constitutions and then elect new governments through elections that enfranchised the freed slaves but barred voting and officeholding to almost anyone connected with the late Confederacy. This process had been completed in Mississippi by 1870, and its reconstructed Republican legislature was empowered to choose senators to fill seats that had been vacant during military rule. One of them was for a term that had only fourteen months left to run, and forty-two-year-old Revels, then a state senator from Natchez, got it.
Revels was exactly the kind of African-American poised to grasp the opportunities that emancipation and suffrage offered. He had been born free in North Carolina and had acquired some basic education while supporting himself as a barber. The path led upward through a seminary in Indiana to ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he had settled in Natchez as a minister and teacher, where he became involved in Republican politics.
When Revels arrived to take his seat in February of 1870, he ran into strong resistance from Democrats, especially border-state racists like Delaware’s Willard Saulsbury and Kentucky’s Garrett Davis. Both found technical grounds for challenging his election, and both were unabashed in voicing opinions that would be unthinkable to acknowledge openly a century later. Saulsbury had introduced a memorial urging legislation to “secure the Government of the United States to the white race,” and Davis declared, “I do not know why the law of the universe permitted that race [blacks] to be brought here … unless it was to curse and to create another devil for the white man!” When the vote came, however, before packed galleries, Revels was seated by a straight party-line vote.
Being seated, however, was not the same as being heard. Revels got only a single minor bill passed and failed in all efforts to block measures he opposed. After his pioneering but brief tenure ended, he became president of state-supported Alcorn University for blacks from 1871 to 1882, with one brief intermission. He died in 1901.
Blanche K. Bruce’s story was both more colorful and more in tune with the Horatio Alger spirit of the Gilded Age. He was born a slave in 1841 but got some rudimentary learning from his owner and after emancipation founded a black school in Hannibal, Missouri. He managed to get to Oberlin College for some advanced education, kept himself alive for a while thereafter by working as a riverboat porter, and finally arrived in Mississippi in 1868 with seventy-five cents in his pocket. Six years later he was a senator-elect. Smart investing in real estate had earned him moderate wealth, while good manners, suavity, and political realism had made him the popular choice for a number of successive local offices. Bruce did not encounter the outbursts that had greeted Revels, but he was equally unable to accomplish much. He successfully advocated federal aid to navigation on the Mississippi, a cause popular with the whole South, but his efforts on behalf of pensions for black Union veterans and desegregation of the Army failed. A more important lost battle was his inability to get the Senate to confirm the challenged election of Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, as senator from Louisiana. Pinchback, too, was a self-made black success story; he was not seated because the tide was turning against Reconstruction. Not only would there be no second black senator to serve with him, but black representation in the House sank from seven members to none as the Fifteenth Amendment, giving the vote to all regardless of race, was fraudulently and forcefully nullified in the South. In 1880 Mississippi chose a Democrat for Bruce’s seat. He moved to Washington, where he held several federal appointments from Republican Presidents. At his death in 1898 he was a comfortable member of the District’s “colored” elite.
It was from that elite that Edward Brooke emerged before he arrived in the Senate a full eighty-six years after Bruce had left it. Educated at the then-segregated Dunbar High School and Howard University, Brooke, the son of an attorney for the Veterans’ Administration, followed World War II service in Italy by taking a law degree at Boston University. Brooke began a private practice in Massachusetts in the 1950s. He ran for the state legislature as a Republican, which made him something of a rarity; by then the “black vote” had been solidly Democratic for almost a generation. Brooke lost on two successive tries for the legislature, but he finally broke through to victory by being elected the state’s attorney general in 1962. Nomination for senator followed in 1966, and he beat his Democratic opponent—no easy task in Massachusetts.
Though Brooke had not taken a major part in civil rights activities, his victory clearly owed something to the fact that the movement for equality had just crested in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. If the first Reconstruction was indispensable to getting Revels and Bruce into the Senate, the rekindling of its ideals a century after was at the least helpful to Brooke. “There was no special fanfare for me,” he noted later of his swearing in. “I felt like a member of the club.” He remained for two terms, a moderate Republican with a strong interest in tax reform, fair housing, truth-in-lending legislation, and aid to education. He served on President Johnson’s commission to investigate the causes of the urban riots of the sixties, and later he led the charge to defeat two Nixon nominees for the Supreme Court.
Generalizations about Senator Moseley-Braun’s term, a rather controversial one in Illinois, are hard to make this soon after her defeat. It was not remarkable for any major legislative initiative, and she was something of an accidental senator. Previously a little-known lawyer, state legislator, and recorder of deeds, she emerged the winner in a 1992 three-way Democratic primary in which she had broad support from women throughout the state during the so-called Year of the Woman, while her two male opponents split the rest of the vote between them. Then she won against a conservative Republican candidate no more familiar to the voters than she was. Her skin color was neither a campaign issue nor the reason for her victory.
What we are left with is a record of two African-American senators elected under the one-time-only circumstances of Reconstruction, another chosen at the high tide of a civil rights crusade of the 1960s, and one winning office more or less unexpectedly. It is hardly a promising prospect for African-Americans planning senatorial careers, although there are now hundreds, even thousands, of black mayors and city and state officials (but no governors at the moment) and a significant black membership in the House of Representatives. But at least the trend—if so meager a showing can be said to constitute a trend—is promising. That is, the earlier two African-American senators were the products of a fleeting historic moment, their service eclipsed by decades of institutionalized racism, but the two in our century reflect the changes the civil rights movement has worked on the national consciousness. It says something about that change that our third black senator could merge unnoticed into committees and groups busy with matters unrelated to race—and that the election and non-reelection of the most recent had nothing to do with race at all.