The Right Men at the Right Time

The African-American legislators who fought to make Reconstruction work.

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Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, September 21, 2008; Page BW04


The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen

By Philip Dray

Houghton Mifflin. 463 pp. $30

For years, many historians got Reconstruction (1866-77) wrong. As Philip Dray notes in his absorbing new book, "History and popular culture for decades characterized it as an atrocious failure."

Many early scholarly accounts of our nation's troublesome effort to repair itself after the Civil War defended the Confederacy so ardently that it was hard to distinguish them from fictional efforts inspired by the period. For example, racist tracts such as Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Thomas Dixon's only slightly less subtle The Clansman (the basis for D.W. Griffith's film "The Birth of a Nation") differed little in tone and spirit from (long since discredited) nonfiction books such as W.E. Woodward's Meet General Grant. Both kinds of works suggested, to borrow Woodward's pithy phrasing, that "the American Negroes are the only people in the world, so far as I know, that ever became free without any effort of their own." Although focusing on Reconstruction, Dray also pauses to puncture such infuriating whoppers. He writes that "by war's end almost 180,000 black Americans had worn Union army uniforms, while 24,000 served in the navy; a total of 37,000 sacrificed their lives."

Reconstruction -- an audaciously hopeful term -- began in the bloody, rubble-strewn aftermath of the Civil War and effectively ended with the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877. A lot of drama unfolded during a relatively brief period, and it was not just confined to the former Confederate states. As Dray makes clear, the consequences of reconciliation often reverberated with near-equal force in the North.

It was a drama with many principal players, including Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's ill-equipped successor; radical Republicans Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens; and recalcitrant Southerners such as Martin W. Gary and Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman. Dray pays due attention to these critical figures, usually capturing their performances in compact, revealing phrases. He writes of Johnson, "When the need for national healing and inspired leadership could not have been more acute, America was bequeathed not a Washington or a Jefferson, but a man who was not supposed to be president." Stevens, on the other hand, "envisioned Reconstruction not as a time simply to patch and mend America but as an opportunity to perform reconstructive surgery."

But Dray devotes the majority of his pages to a significant minority: some of the first African Americans ever to serve in Congress. A few, such as Robert Smalls and Blanche K. Bruce, have been the subject of recent, thorough biographies. Others, such as Robert Brown Elliott and John Roy Lynch, emerge here as fascinating figures deserving full-length studies.

Most of Dray's Capitol men -- female representation, like female suffrage, was a thing of the future -- first came to public attention during the state conventions. Congress required a new constitution from each Confederate state before it could be re-admitted to the Union. The gatherings were "extraordinary events" and "the nation's first biracial experiment in governance," Dray writes. "Most of the whites present, including members of the press, were seeing and hearing for the first time the phenomenon of black men speaking their opinions freely." He observes that "black officeholders tended to be -- had to be -- exceptional individuals. . . . In general they brought an impressive degree of competence and dedication to their jobs, dispelling critics' claims that they possessed no aptitude for politics or statesmanship."

They were more than just at the right place in the right time: They were the right men for their time and place. The range of personalities on display in Dray's telling would provide ideal material for a cable miniseries (HBO, anyone?). Smalls, the intrepid former slave who stole a rebel ship and steered it to Union waters under fire, was a hero of the conventional sort. His fellow South Carolinian Elliott had more unorthodox origins. Perhaps the most colorful of the Capitol men, Elliott was multilingual and versed in the classics; he possessed an extensive library -- and a completely mysterious, possibly made-up background. He seemed to have simply appeared one day, yet became "an orator of genius" whose defense of Reconstruction on the House floor was "arguably one of the most daring addresses ever proclaimed in Congress."

Dray's subjects weren't just "bright, clean and articulate." They were able legislators too. At his state convention, Smalls pushed through South Carolina's first bill mandating compulsory education. In Congress, Elliott successfully championed the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Dray includes enough facts about these figures to fill a "Jeopardy" category. Among them: the first time a black American ever addressed Congress (J. Willis Menard of Louisiana, on Feb. 27, 1869); the first black ever to serve -- albeit briefly -- as governor of a state (P.B.S. Pinchback took the reins in Louisiana for slightly more than a month); and the first African American to serve a full term in the Senate, Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi.

Nor does Dray, also the author of a fine, graphically compelling study of lynching, shy away from telling us what these men were up against. He details both the violence (in the form of Klan campaigns, bloodthirsty rifle clubs and systematic rape of black women) and the political maneuverings, such as the dismantling of the Enforcement Acts, the Mississippi Plan and the capitulating North's increasing willingness to get on with the business of reconciliation, no matter what the cost. The combination of such forces led to but a brief taste of political power for the Capitol men and their constituents. Following Hayes's election, Dray notes, the Republicans handed the South back to the Democrats and "black participation fell off precipitously." During the 1880s, no more than two at a time served in Congress; "three were present for the Fifty-first Congress (1889-91), and from 1891 to 1901, no more than one participated."

Joseph H. Rainey, who had been one of the first to serve, refused to let the rise of the racist South go unchallenged. "In the name of my race and my people, in the name of humanity, in the name of God," he thundered from the House floor. "I ask you whether we are to be American citizens . . . or whether we are to be vassals and slaves again?"

Until the dawn of the modern civil rights revolution, Rainey's bold inquiry was merely a rhetorical question. ยท

Jabari Asim is editor in chief of the Crisis magazine and author of "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't and Why," newly released in paperback.

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