From the time before the American War for Independence, black Americans served as elected officials in local politics. Following the Civil War, hundreds more were elected to state and federal office.
For example, at the national level, in 1871, Robert Brown Elliott was elected to the US House of Representatives — one of the first blacks elected to national office (the picture on the left shows the first seven blacks elected to Congress, including Elliott; all seven were Republicans). Originally from England, Elliott came to the U.S. in 1867 and quickly became influential in South Carolina, being one of 78 black delegates to the 1868 state constitutional convention, and placing second in the vote to be speaker of the state house.
Shortly after his election to the US House, Republican Elliott faced off in a debate over a civil rights bill against three pro-slavery Democrats: Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia (the former Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, elected as a Democrat to Congress after the Civil War), James Beck of Kentucky (elected in 1867), and John Thomas Harris of Virginia (elected in 1871). After those three Democrats attacked the civil rights bill that protected the constitutional rights of black Americans, Elliott (pictured below) rose and responded:
[I]t is a matter of regret to me that it is necessary at this day that I should rise in the presence of an American Congress to advocate a bill which simply asserts rights and equal privileges for all classes of American citizens. 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 natural justice. Sir, the motive that impels me is restricted by no such narrow boundary but is as broad as the Constitution.
Elliott then went on to recount how African-Americans had fought for America during the War for Independence, the War of 1812, and the recent Civil War. He concluded with a stiff rebuke against the racist Democrat Stephens:
He [Stephens — pictured on the right] offers his government (which he has done his utmost to destroy) a very poor return for its magnanimous treatment, to come here to seek to continue, by the assertion of doctrines obnoxious to the true principles of our government, the burdens and oppressions which rest upon five millions of his countrymen [slaves] who never failed to lift their earnest prayers for the success of this government when the gentleman [Stephens] was asking to break up the Union of these States and to blot the American Republic from the galaxy of nations.
Elliott’s powerful and eloquent arguments embarrassed his opponents. The Democrats were incensed, but their replies were shallow at best. As the American Methodist Episcopal Church Review reported:
Mr. Beck of Kentucky, and other Democratic members of the House who had felt the force of Mr. Elliott’s rhetoric to their discomfiture, could not deny the merit of his speeches, so they denied his authorship of them. . . . The charge of non-authorship was made by Democrats upon the general principle that the Negro, of himself, could accomplish nothing of literary excellence.
In short, Democrats claimed that no black was smart enough to make such arguments as Elliott had, so he must have plagiarized them from someone else!
Elliott served in the House of Representatives until 1874 when he resigned and returned to South Carolina politics. Forced out of office with the resurgence of the Democratic Party in the south (1877), he became a customs inspector for the federal Treasury Department (1879-1882) and then ran a law practice before his death in 1884.
The courageous efforts for freedom and equality made by Elliott and other Americans throughout history should never be forgotten.
* Originally published: June 20, 2017.