Wednesday, January 16, 2013

African-Americans Enter Public Office

 Cong. Geo. Henry White, R-NC, 1897-1901
Part 3 in a series commemorating the birth of Dr. King and the second inauguration of President Obama on January 21st. 

Today's Democratic Party boasts the election of the first African-American President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama II, who begins an historic second term in a few days. 

During Reconstruction (1865-1877), it was the GOP, "The Party of Lincoln," that worked with African-Americans to help them get elected to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The Republican Party also advocated for African-Americans by appointing them to patronage jobs, particularly those as postmasters. 

Using voter intimidation and poll taxes, Southern Democrats, representing the former Confederacy, were unscrupulously able to grab and wield power again. 

In his book "The Negro and the Federal Government" (1967), Samuel Krislov discusses this era when African-Americans began losing gains previously made in elective offices in southern and border states. 

One of the most historic examples was North Carolina attorney George Henry White who ran as a Republican and defeated the white Democratic incumbent to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1896, representing a predominantly African-American district. White confronted disfranchisement and mob violence head-on and, on January 20, 1900, introduced the first bill in Congress to make lynching a federal crime. It died in committee. 

Krislov wrote: "White used the power of his office to appoint several African-American postmasters across his district, with the assistance of the state's Republican senator, Jeter C. Pritchard. They were able to make patronage hires, as did other postmasters. Following the actions of North Carolina Democrats in 1899, who changed the state constitution to disfranchise blacks, White chose not to seek a third term. He told the Chicago Tribune, 'I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man and be treated as a man.' He announced plans to leave his home state and start a law practice in Washington, D.C. at the end of his term.” 

On January 29, 1901 White delivered his final, and what would be prophetic, speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives: "This is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force." 

"On the whole political patronage had proved an inadequate means to expand Negro opportunity," Krislov explained. "It was rather the civil service, with its merit system, that opened the way to Negro participation in public life.”

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