Excerpt from his speech on the Civil Rights Bill of 1875
Given on June 9, 1874
A U.S. representative from Alabama talks about the discrimination he faces as a black man
"I feel this humiliation very keenly; it dwarfs my manhood, and certainly it impairs my usefulness as a citizen.…"
The struggle for racial equality was a difficult and step-by-step battle in the years after the American Civil War (1861–65). In three hard-won constitutional amendments passed over a five-year period, African Americans were freed from slavery, granted citizenship and equal legal treatment, and given the right to vote (although this last amendment applied to men only). But in many aspects of everyday life, African Americans remained second-class citizens. African Americans and whites attended separate schools, worshipped in separate churches, and buried their dead in separate cemeteries. African Americans were limited to the least-desirable cars on any train, and often they were turned away from restaurants and hotels.
Charles Sumner (1811–1874), a U.S. senator from Massachusetts who led the Radical Republicans' push for racial equality, proposed a bill that would ban such discrimination in schools, churches, cemeteries, hotels, theaters, railroads, and other public facilities. Just as the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1866 (see Chapter 8) had barred local governments from passing discriminatory laws against African Americans, this Civil Rights Bill would prohibit businesses from treating African Americans differently than whites (see box). The bill would also protect African American men's rights to sit on a jury. With Sumner
on his death bed in the spring of 1874, the passage of the bill became his final wish.
The Senate passed the measure in May 1874—in part, out of respect for a dying colleague—but many doubted the House of Representatives would approve it. The bill faced opposition among white Northerners and Southerners alike, who viewed it as a step toward creating "social equality" among the races. Many whites feared the idea of racial intermingling: African Americans competing in white-dominated industries or marrying into white families. Those fears may have been exaggerated: "It is a wholesale falsehood to say that we wish to force ourselves upon white people," said P. B. S. Pinchback (1837–1921), an African American member of the Louisiana state senate, as quoted in Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Yet the white voters' fears weighed heavily on the congressmen, as they were all up for reelection in 1874.
The congressmen passionately debated the bill over the coming months, with the seven African American members of Congress detailing their own experiences of being thrown from trolleys or turned away from upscale restaurants. John Roy Lynch (1847–1939), an African American representative from one of the largest and wealthiest districts in Mississippi, described the discrimination he faced on every trip to Washington, D.C., in a speech reprinted in The American Heritage History of the Confident Years:
I am treated, not as an American citizen, but as a brute. Forced to occupy a filthy smoking-car both night and day, with drunkards, gamblers, and criminals; and for what? Not that I am unable or unwilling to pay my way; not that I am obnoxious in my personal appearance or disrespectful in my conduct; but simply because I happen to be of a darker complexion.
U.S. representative James Rapier (1837–1883) of Alabama had a similar story to share. Rapier was born to a free African American family in Alabama and educated in Tennessee and Canada. He returned to the South during the Civil War, and was one of the ninety-six delegates who rewrote Alabama's state constitution after the war. Upon his 1872 election to Congress, Rapier lobbied for providing former plantation lands to African Americans and quality schools for all. Yet every trip to the capital brought fresh reminders of the discrimination he was trying to fight.
Things to remember while reading James Rapier's speech on the Civil Rights Bill:
- African Americans had been freed from slavery, granted citizenship and equal legal treatment, and given the right to vote (for men) under three constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War. But African Americans still faced discrimination in the private sector: train conductors put them in the least desirable cars, and the operators of some hotels and restaurants refused to serve them.
- The earlier Civil Rights Bill of 1866 barred local governments from passing discriminatory laws against African Americans. The later Civil Rights Bill, debated by Congress in 1874–75, would prevent businesses from treating African Americans differently than whites.
- In 1874, Congress had seven African American members—men who could vote and shape laws—yet even these men faced discrimination during their travels to the capital.
Excerpt from James Rapier's speech on the Civil Rights Bill of 1875
I must confess it is somewhat embarrassing for a colored man to urge the passage of this bill, because if he exhibit an earnestness in the matter and express a desire for its immediate passage, straightway he is charged with a desire for social equality, as explained by the demagogue and understood by the ignorant white man. But then it is just as embarrassing for him not to do so, for, if he remain silent while the struggle is being carried on around, and for him, he is liable to be charged with a want of interest in a matter that concerns him more than any one else, which is enough to make his friends desert his cause.…
Let me cite a case. Not many months ago Mr. [Francis] Cardozo, treasurer of the State of South Carolina, was on his way home from the West. His route lay through Atlanta. There he made request for a sleeping-berth. Not only was he refused this, but was denied a seat in a first-class carriage, and the parties went so far as to threaten to take his life because he insisted upon his rights as a traveler. He was compelled, a most elegant and accomplished gentleman, to take a seat in a dirty smoking-car, along with the traveling rabble, or else be left, to the detriment of his public duties.
I affirm, without the fear of contradiction, that any white ex-convict (I care not what may have been his crime, nor whether the hair on the shaven side of his head has had time to grow out or not) may start with me to-day to Montgomery (Alabama), that all the way down he will be treated as a gentleman, while I will be treated as the convict. He will be allowed a berth in a sleeping-car with all its comforts, while I will be forced into a dirty, rough box with the drunkards, apple-sellers, railroad hands, and next to any dead that may be in transit, regardless of how far decomposition may have progressed.…
And I state without the fear of being gainsaid, … that there is not an inn between Washington and Montgomery, a distance of more than a thousand miles, that will accommodate me to a bed or meal. Now, then, is there a man upon this floor who is so heartless, whose breast is so void of the better feelings, as to say that this brutal custom needs no regulation? I hold that it does and that Congress is the body to regulate it.…
Sir, I submit that I am degraded
Mr. Speaker, nothing short of a complete acknowledgment of my manhood will satisfy me. I have no compromises to make, and shall unwillingly accept any.…
Sir, in order that I might know something of the feelings of a freeman, a privilege denied me in the land of my birth, I left home last year and traveled six months in foreign lands [in Europe], and the moment I put my foot upon the deck of a ship that unfurled a foreign flag from its mast-head, distinctions on account of my color ceased. I am not aware that my presence on board the steamer put her off her course. I believe we made the trip in the usual time. It was in other countries than my own that I was not a stranger, that I could approach a hotel without the fear that the door would be slammed in my face. Sir, I feel this humiliation very keenly; it dwarfs my manhood, and certainly it impairs my usefulness as a citizen.…
Mr. Speaker, to call this land the asylum of the oppressed is a misnomer, for upon all sides I am treated as a pariah. I hold that the solution of this whole matter is to enact such laws and prescribe such penalties for their violation as will prevent any person from discriminating against another in public places on account of color. No one asks, no one seeks the passage of a law that will interfere with any one's private affairs. But I do ask the enactment of a law to secure me in the enjoyment of public privileges.…
What happened next …
Aware that the measure was unpopular with many voters, the House of Representatives postponed a vote on the Civil Rights Bill until after the 1874 elections. It would be a tough enough campaign, as the country was in the midst of an economic depression. Some whites had grown increasingly frustrated with the role of African American men as voters and public officials, and they decided intimidation and violence was the best way to keep African Americans out of politics. In various pockets of the South, white supremacist groups drove African Americans from their homes and assassinated Republican officials who supported equal rights (see Chapter 15). The tactics worked: the Democrats, the party of the white South, won a landslide victory in 1874.
Congress still had one last session in early 1875 before the new members were sworn in, and the Republicans realized they would soon lose control of Congress—and the post-war Reconstruction efforts. Before leaving, they added funding for Union troops in the South, beefed up efforts to fight voter intimidation, and gave the federal courts the power to handle more racial discrimination cases. They also approved the Civil Rights Bill after removing the passage that would have integrated schools, a move that made it easier for moderates to support the bill.
The Civil Rights Bill only fueled the resentments among white Southerners. In the Alabama community of Troy, for example, a group of whites passed a resolution strongly opposing the measure. They vowed to cut off all social interactions with the bill's supporters, whom they described as "the enemies of our race," according to the resolution reprinted in The American Heritage History of the Confident Years. To those whites, the bill threatened "the protection of our dearest and most sacred interests, our homes, our honor, the purity and integrity of our race," as well as the "peace and tranquility of the country."
Yet the bill was stronger on paper than in practice. The law offered sweeping statements on the rights of African Americans, but few specifics on how to enforce those rights. As noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, "it left the initiative for enforcement primarily with black litigants [plaintiffs] suing for their rights in the already overburdened federal courts." Only a handful chose that route, and ultimately they lost.
The Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Bill in 1883, declaring the law unconstitutional. The amendments to the Constitution ended slavery and prohibited discriminatory laws against African Americans, but Congress cannot go beyond those measures to regulate "the conduct of individuals in society towards each other," Justice Joseph P. Bradley (1813–1892) wrote in the ruling, reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. Any discriminatory businesspractices should be addressed on the local level, through state laws or state courts, Bradley wrote.
The ruling was devastating to African Americans. The Reconstruction efforts were already unraveling, as the Union troops left the South shortly after the 1876 election and Democrats regained control of the local governments. The court's ruling signaled a final blow to the efforts to provide racial equality. Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915), a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, blasted the ruling in a letter to the Memphis Appeal newspaper, reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. He wrote:
If the decision is correct, the United States constitution is a dirty rag, a cheat, a libel [damaging lie], and ought to be spit upon by every negro in the land. More, if the decision is correct and is accepted by the country, then prepare to return to Africa, or get ready for extermination.
The promise of equal rights would be replaced in 1896 by a new phrase: "separate but equal." That was the new standard set by the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed railroads to provide separate cars for African Americans and whites, as long as those cars were comparable. Racial segregation remained legal under that ruling until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, in which the Supreme Court ordered a Kansas school district to do away with separate schools for African American and white students.
Did you know …
- Rapier lost his congressional seat in 1876, after Alabama officials redrew the districts in a way that made whites the majority in all but one district. Although he remained active in Republican politics, he grew discouraged with the second-class treatment African Americans received in his home state. He urged African Americans to move to the western states, where they enjoyed greater freedoms than in the South. But he remained in Alabama, where he died in 1883 of tuberculosis (a fatal infection of the lungs).
- Some Southern whites were so opposed to the idea of sending whites to the same schools as African Americans, they vowed to shut down all schools if the Civil Rights Bill forced them to integrate. Fearing this would bring an end to the newly created public school systems—leaving the South unschooled and ignorant—the supporters of the Civil Rights Bill agreed to drop any mention of integrated schools.
- After the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Bill, nearly three-quarters of a century would pass before Congress passed another civil rights measure, in 1957.
Consider the following …
- Why did Rapier and others think the Civil Rights Bill was necessary?
- Why did some whites oppose the bill?
- How do you think the issue of discrimination in hotels, restaurants, public transportation, and other business-owned facilities should have been addressed?
For More Information
Andrist, Ralph K., ed. The American Heritage History of the Confident Years. New York: American Heritage/Bonanza Books, 1987.
Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.