As I See It? 8-2
Sunday, February 15, 2009

By Eric Freedman and Stephen A. Jones

The controversial appointment of Democrat Roland Burris by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is not the only time a prospective African-American senator has roiled the placid stateliness of the U.S. Capitol.

Blagojevich, who is under federal indictment on corruption charges, named Burris, a former state attorney general, to fill President-elect Barack Obama's seat. Although Burris has been seated, he had to overcome initial vocal objections from the Senate's Democrats and the Illinois public.

Critics didn't claim Burris was unqualified, but argued that his appointment was tainted by the cloud of criminality hovering over the governor's head. And some Burris defenders asserted that race was an unspoken but real factor behind such objections.

For a broader perspective, turn back the clock to 1870, five years after the Civil War, when Hiram Revels of Mississippi arrived in Washington to be the first African-American senator.
His selection tested the fabric of Reconstruction values and the willingness of at least part of the nation to abide by the results of the Civil War in the context of political rights.

Revels was born free in North Carolina and ordained an African Methodist Episcopal minister. Once war erupted, he recruited black soldiers in Maryland and served as chaplain of a black regiment stationed in Mississippi, where he settled and won a state Senate seat in 1861.

When Mississippi reentered the Union, the Republican-controlled legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate (ironically filling the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis), triggering three days of searing debate over whether to seat him.

On one level, Democratic opposition was couched largely in constitutional terms. If, as the Supreme Court's notorious 1858 Dred Scott decision held, blacks weren't U.S. citizens - a ruling that was technically not overturned until the 14th Amendment in 1868 - then Revels didn't meet the constitutional requirement that members of Congress be “nine years a citizen” before being sworn in, they argued.
Democrats also accused the Republicans of partisanship, a motivation true on both sides.

But as the debate shows, racism was the implicit - and occasionally explicit - basis for opposition.

For example, Sen. Garrett Davis, a Kentucky Democrat, said: “Never before in the history of this Government has a colored man been elected to Senate of the United States. Today for the first time one presents himself and asks admission to a seat in it. Did he come here by the free voices, by the spontaneous choice of the free people of Mississippi?

“No, sir; no. The sword of a military dictator has opened the way for his easy march to the Senate of the United States,” Davis said, continuing, “The black race. I do not know why the law of the universe permitted that race to be brought here; and, above all, I do not know why the Yankees were made their instruments in bringing them here, unless it was to curse and to create another devil for the white man!”

But speaking in defense of Revels, Nevada Republican James Nye countered, “Sir, this is the crowning glory of a long series of measures. This is the day long looked for, when we put into practical effect the theory that has existed as old as man. We say that men are brothers; whatever their color, all as subject to the same law, and all are eligible to fill any place within the gift of the people.”
The press closely followed the controversy.

The pro-Republican Harper's Weekly described Revels as “thoroughly respected by his own people, and by whites,” and wrote, “It is no less striking and significant that the papers which always toadied the great slave-drivers in Congress gibe and sneer at the new senator, not because of any want of capacity, any fault of character, or any defect of manner, but solely because of color.”
But after Revels gave his maiden speech, the pro-Democratic New York World wrote, “Today's session of the Senate was signalized by the first speech ever delivered by the lineal descendant of an orang-outang in Congress,” and in blatantly racist words described him sitting at his desk “tranquilly pawing his lower visage and beard with hands resembling claws, and eying the assemblage aloft with a greasy and complacent smile.”

When the Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat him, Vice President Schuyler Colfax announced, “The Senator-elect will present himself at the chair to take the oaths of office.”
He was escorted to the vice president's desk, sworn in and took his seat in the Senate.

Revels served little more than a year before returning to Mississippi, and he later became president of Alcorn Agricultural College, now Alcorn State University.

No major legislation bears his name, and Revels remains largely forgotten beyond a footnote in the history books.

Perhaps that's an ill omen for Roland Burris. Although he has now overcome opposition and been seated in the Senate, it's unlikely he'll play a major legislative role in that august chamber and, instead, will become a mere footnote as well.

But Burris's fate already has been better than that of Pinckney B.S. Pinchback, the son of a freed slave and former governor who was chosen in 1872 to fill a Senate seat from Louisiana.
The validity of his official election certificate was challenged when he got to Washington. The challenge languished for three years before the Senate formally rejected Pinchback, and he never served due to the state's bitterly divisive Republican politics, racism, partisanship in Congress and a double standard that favored whites over blacks in election disputes.

Eric Freedman is associate professor of Journalism at Michigan State University and Stephen A. Jones is assistant professor of History at Central Michigan University. They are co-editors of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).


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