Black History Month is almost over. I'm glad we still observe what some consider an anachronism that has outlived its usefulness. I used to feel that way, too. After all, the celebration has become a cliche.
Each February, students and teachers go through the motions of acknowledging the contributions of African-Americans in U.S. history with trite essays, tortuous poetry, and often talentless artwork, always celebrating the same familiar characters — among them Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and, of course, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But there are so many more important African-Americans than Booker T. or Malcolm who should be studied, celebrated and held up as examples to emulate. Start with the first blacks to ever serve in Congress. Can you name one?
I couldn't either, until I read Philip Dray's brilliant book Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). It should be required reading in any American history course, to fully understand how the impact of Abraham Lincoln's assassination reached well into the 20th century. Consider that President Andrew Johnson refused to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1865, leading to Congress' first-ever override of a presidential veto.
Subsequent presidents pulled federal troops out of the South and abandoned blacks, who were brutalized, lynched and otherwise intimidated. Districts where blacks were the majority were gerrymandered to dilute the effect of any who still dared vote, setting the stage for the eventual departure from Congress of every black member. These men have become nonentities in American history, hardly mentioned if at all, even during Black History Month.
There are people today who believe no blacks served in Congress after Reconstruction ended because none was qualified. Wrong. It was gerrymandering, poll taxes and literacy tests arbitrarily given to black voters that did that.
After Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina left office in 1901, no blacks served in Congress until 1929 when Rep. Oscar Stanton DePriest of Illinois took office. The South didn't send another black to Congress until 1973, when Reps. Andrew Young of Georgia and Barbara Jordan of Texas arrived.
But let's get back to Reconstruction. On the cover of Dray's book is a Currier & Ives lithograph of the first seven black members of Congress — Sen. Hiram Revels of Mississippi, a magnificent speaker who in 1870 was denied a podium at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia because of his race (the same thing happened to Frederick Douglass); Rep. Benjamin Turner of Alabama; Rep. Jefferson Long of Georgia; Reps. Robert De Large, Robert Brown Elliott, and Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina; and Rep. Josiah Walls of Florida.
Any of these men's stories is worth a Black History Month essay. Heck, most of their lives would make a good movie. But my favorite story is Elliott's.
In 1874, Elliott, who had been elected to the House three years earlier, became the strongest voice in Congress for passage of a civil rights bill after its principal advocate, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, fell ill and soon died.
The dark-skinned Elliott's oratory mesmerized whites who believed that only those beige African-Americans with more Caucasian blood in their veins were intellectually capable of such. Elliott eviscerated the argument of Rep. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, former vice president of the Confederacy, who said civil rights should be subservient to the "social rights" of whites to segregate themselves.
Of Stephens, Elliott said, "It is scarcely 12 years since that gentleman shocked the civilized world by announcing the birth of a government which rested on human slavery as its cornerstone. The progress of events has swept away that pseudo-government which rested on greed, pride, and tyranny; and the race whom he then ruthlessly spurned and trampled on are here to meet him in debate, and to demand that the rights which are enjoyed by their former oppressors … shall be accorded to those who even in the darkness of slavery kept their allegiance true to freedom and the Union."
Elliott's summation leaned on the Book of Ruth to characterize what should be the relationship among America's fellow citizens, black and white: "For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people; and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed, and Elliott's speech made him as famous as Barack Obama after his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But there was no presidency in Elliott's future. In 1884, he died a virtual pauper at the age of 41 in New Orleans, where his last job was as a U.S. customs agent.
These men's stories should resonate in a nation that — as it did in prematurely abandoning Reconstruction — appears to have grown weary with addressing problems rooted in the enslavement, segregation and disenfranchisement of its African-American citizens. It will take more than one month to study this lesson, but February is as good a month as any to start.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. © 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer