Black History: They Came Before Obama

Isaac Newton once said of his innovations, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We may consider that saying to be a platitude but it is still correct. The advancements we make today are built on the ideas and struggles of the generations that came before […]

Isaac Newton once said of his innovations, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We may consider that saying to be a platitude but it is still correct. The advancements we make today are built on the ideas and struggles of the generations that came before us. As I write this, I am caught up in the whirlwind of Obama fever that’s overtaking our nation, as millions wait to see if he can become the first Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. That would be historical, and yet Obama is already a part of history. As the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama is one of the five black senators who have served America since Reconstruction and while they are all different it would be a mistake to think of them as wholly individual parts. In various ways each of these Americans has paved the path for blacks, not only to serve in Congress but to participate in our political process. So today I would like to take a look at the black senators that preceded Obama, and explore how they established a new and radical tradition of American politics.


Reconstruction Days—Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Bruce





On the most visceral level, Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American senator, is the most like Barack Obama. Known for his captivating oratorical skills and talent for compromise, Revels was also of a mixed blood heritage. He was born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was trained as a barber, but fell in love with education. He attended Union County Quaker Seminary, went to Knox College in Illinois, and became an ordained minister at a black seminary in Ohio. Following this, he traveled the Union and helped set up various schools for blacks to the vexation of whites and during 1854 he was imprisoned for a time in Missouri. When the Civil War broke out he answered his call to duty as a chaplain where he helped raise two black Union regiments and played a part in the battle of Vicksburg. From there he continued on his traveling ministry until 1866 when he was giving a permanent parish in Mississippi. It was here that his political career began.



After Reconstruction there was a push from North to give blacks a voice in the Southern political system, and a burgeoning Republican party had found their man in Revels. John R. Lynch, a black Congressman from Mississippi who served during Revels tenure, said of him, “…so far as known he [Revels] had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man, and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence.” In 1869 Revels was elected to state legistlature and after giving one of the most elequoent opening prayers delivered in the state house they elected him to the Senate (at the time, national Senators were elected by state legislature) by a vote of 81-15. Ironically, the seat he took over had been previously held by Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy.



Revels resigned after one year in office, but he left a lasting impression among his white counterparts who were impressed with his political temperment and gentle persuasive abilities. He was able to maintain a vigorious agenda for racial equality, successfully ending job discrimination at the Washington Navy Yard, while advocating amnesty for ex-confederates. After he left his seat he became the first president of Alcorn Agricutural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) but continued to play a political role serving for a time as Mississippi’s secretary of state, and vocally denouncing carpetbaggers for manipulating the black vote for their individual agendas.




Blanche Bruce, represented Mississippi in the Senate from 1875 to 1881 becoming the first black to serve for a full term. Unlike Ravels, Bruce traveled to the Senate in a more traditional route. As the illegatimate son of a white plantation owner and his black slave, he was liberally accepted by his father who allowed him to be educated and play with his white half-brothers. He was freed when he came to age and his father set up for him to intern as a printer’s apprentice in Missouri, and from there Bruce went on to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1964 he moved back to Missouri to establish a school for blacks. Economically savvy, Bruce was among the few blacks to take advantage of the new liberities they enjoyed after the Civil War, and he became a wealthy landowner in the Mississippi. Of course, with wealth comes political power. He was appointed to several positions such as registrar of voters and tax assessor, and then won his first election as sheriff. From there he won more elections until in 1874 he was elected by the state legislature to the US Senate. As a senator Bruce wasn’t quite as radical as Revels but he was an effectitve leader and he eventually became the first black to ever preside over a senate committee (an ad hoc group assigned to investigate the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company). He also appealed for the desegregation of the army and encouraged the distribution of land grants to freed slaves.



While much information about Bruce is lost to history, it’s apparent that he must have been popular in his age. Once he was out of office he became the first black to win any votes in a party nomination process, taking eight votes for VP at the 1880 Republican National convention and in 1881 President James Garfield appointed him Register of the Treasury (now the Bureau of Public Debt). At the time the Register would sign all US currency thus making Bruce the first black person ever to have their name on American money.



The Civil Rights Era—Edward Brooke III and Carol Moseley Braun





The end of Reconstruction brought a major drought to blacks serving in most political office, particularly in the Senate. This drought came to an end in 1966 when Edward W. Brooke III became the first black ever to be elected to the senate by a popular vote, in Massachusetts. Like Revels, Brooke was a military man who spent five years as an officer in the segregated 366 infantry regiment during World War II. He fought in North Africa and Italy and won the Bronze star for leadership. Following his tour of duty he attended Boston University where he graduated with a degree in law. Turning down the opportunity to practice law with his father, Brooke turned his attention to politics and ran a streak of loses before becoming the chairman of the Boston Finance committee and then Massachusetts Attorney General, where he gained a mixed reputation. On one hand he was acclaimed for his prosecuting of organized crime and his managing the Boston strangler investigation, but he caught the wrath of civil rights activists when he proclaimed that the black student boycott of 1963 that protested segregation in Boston schools illegal. Regardless, he managed to run for senate in 1965 and defeated his Democratic opponent handily, 58 to 42.



Brooke ended up serving for two terms in which time he gained a reputation as a radical. Caught in the middle of the Vietnam conflict, he supported the war but opposed various US tactics such as the use of napalm. After the race riots of 1967, President Johnson appointed him to the Commission on Civil Disorder and many of his recommendations, particularly for more stringent laws against housing discrimination, were added into the 1968 Civil Rights Act. He became an advocate for Affirmative Action, school integration, increasing the minimum wage, and improving Social Security, but perhaps he will be best known for being the first congressmen to stand up to President Nixon’s abuses of power. As a Republican, Brooke endorsed Nixon in his 1968 and 1972 campaigns, but once Watergate developed Brooke publicly called for Nixon’s resignation.



In 1978 Democrat Paul Tsongas defeated Brooke, but he spent the rest of his life advocating for minorities and the poor. He headed up the Low Income Housing Coalition and was the first chairman of Alpha Phi Alpha’s World Policy Council, a think tank whose purpose is to expand APA’s involvement in global affairs. Recently, Brooke has been honored by Boston, who named their new courthouse after him, and by George W. Bush, who, in 2004, awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to the United States and the world.





And finally there’s Carol Moseley Braun, the first and only black woman to serve in the US Senate. Elected by the people of Illinois in 1993, Braun has been a lifelong radical activist who has been saying exactly what she feels from a very early age. Born in the segregated South Side of Chicago, a teenage Braun held a one woman sit-in at a restaurant that wouldn’t serve her, confronted a stone throwing mob when she dared to show up at an all-white beach, and marched with MLK when she was 16 in another all-white neighborhood. In 1972 she received a law degree from University of Chicago and became an advocate for children and education reform. Yet, for all her advancements, she may have never gotten into politics had it not been for Clarence Thomas. A harsh critic of his, Braun was enraged when Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court and further infuriated when Illinois’ Democratic senator at the time, Al Dixon, voted for his confirmation. Encouraged by other state politicians who felt that the state and country needed someone more enthusiastic, liberal, and diverse to represent them, Braun challenged Dixon in the Democratic primary and came from behind to defeat him. Dixon had never lost an election in his 43 year career.



As expected, Braun was a powerful advocate for minorities, children, and civil rights and she became the first woman to sit on the Finance Committee for a full term. On economic issues she was a centrist but on social issues she had a liberal record, supporting a woman’s right to choose, voting against the death penalty, and for gun control regulations. She was also among the few senators who voted against the Communications Decency Act and the Defense of Marriage Act. 



Unfortunately, her term was mired in controversy, which thwarted her reelection bid. On a vacation she went to Nigeria and praised Dictator Sani Abacha, defending his human rights record in Congress. Yet, the most notable scandal came when Braun responded to a George Will column that recounted allegations of corruption against her. Of Will she said, “I think because he couldn’t say n#####, he said corrupt…I mean this sincerely from the bottom of my heart: He can take his hood and put it back on again, as far as I’m concerned.” Later Braun apologized for her remarks.



Regardless of all these charges, Braun has remained a very popular figure among Democrats and liberals. President Bill Clinton appointed her Ambassador to New Zealand in 1999 and in 2004 she ran for the Democratic nomination for President but dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.



As far as the fifth and current black Senator from Illinois, well I suppose you’ve heard about him. I am tempted to try to summarize this essay by finding a connection between Obama and the senators who came before him, the future and the past, but that would be an injustice to those who came before. Revels, Bruce, Brooke and Braun worked full and long careers and in retrospect we can dissect the whole of their tenures, their positives and negatives. We have seen them under fire, a fire that Obama has not and probably will never experience, in part, because of the sacrifices of his predecessors. In the book of history Obama’s chapter is still blank, ready to be filled with his victories and defeats, and only at its end can we know how much or different his career was from his peers. But his future, and possibly America’s future, looks promising.


It should—he sits on the shoulders of giants.