Photo Essay - Blacks in Politics, Part 1

Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Rhoades Revels, 1881Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Reconstruction brought about a new era in the political lives of African Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment that extended voting rights to all African Americans was not passed until 1870 but the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868 required that black men be allowed to vote and by 1868 over 800,000 black Americans were registered to do so. In 1869, with the help of the newly established voting rights, the minister Hiram Rhoades Revels easily won election in the mostly black state of Mississippi and became the first African American senator. In an interesting twist of history, Revels completed the unexpired senatorial term of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. In 1875 Blanche Kelso Bruce was also elected senator of Mississippi and became the first African American to serve a full term in the senate. In this 1881 chromolithograph entitled "Heroes of the Colored Race" the African American leader Frederick Douglass is pictured with Blanche Kelso Bruce (left) and Hiram Rhoades Revels (right). Also shown are John Roy Lynch, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Hayne Rainey, Charles E. Nash, John Brown, and Robert Smalls.

John Willis Menard addressing the House, 1869Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1868 John Willis Menard was nominated to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He easily won the Louisiana seat, defeating his white opponent by a wide margin. Nonetheless the victory was contested. On 17 February 1869 Menard pled his case to the House of Representatives. This impassioned speech, depicted above, marked the first time an African American addressed Congress. Neither Menard nor his opponent was awarded the House seat but Menard holds a place in history as the first African American to be elected to the House and also as the first African American to speak on the floor.

Joseph Hayne Rainey (1832-1887)Courtesy of the Library of Congress

John Willis Menard was elected to the House of Representatives in 1868 but he never served and so the House remained closed to African Americans until 1870 when Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African American to serve in the House of Representatives, representing the state of South Carolina. A popular politician, Rainey was reelected four times but by 1878 the political climate of the South had shifted. White politicians were once again in power and Rainey lost his bid for reelection. He went on to become an IRS agent but never returned to public office.

Edward W, Brooke III, c. 1968Courtesy of the Library of Congress

A Republican in a Democratic state and an African American in an overwhelmingly white state, Edward Brooke managed to win the 1966 senatorial seat for Massachusetts. This election made him the first black Senator since the Reconstruction era. Brooke became an important voice in the Republican Party and while he worked against the notion that he was a senator only for African Americans and minority causes, he worked to encourage the inclusion of civil rights and the incorporation of more moderate racial views into the Republican Party. In 1968 there was wide speculation that Brooke would be named the vice presidential candidate, but the position went instead to Spiro Agnew. Brooke served as the senator of Massachusetts until 1978.

Shirley Chisholm, 25 January 1972Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Following a successful term in the New York Assembly, in 1968 Shirley Anita Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to Congress. This historic event was followed shortly after by Chisholm's announcement on 25 January 1972 that she would run for President. Chisholm did not win the Democratic Party nomination in her race against fellow democrats George McGovern, George Wallace, and Hubert Humphrey but she did receive 151 ballots at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. In her words, her run for the presidency was "to demonstrate sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo." After her run for presidency, Chisholm continued as the New York State Representative until 1982.

Lenora Branch FulaniCourtesy of AP

For the last thirty years Leonora Branch Fulani has been a top organizer for the establishment of an independent political movement, a movement that encourages African Americans to be less reliant on the Democratic Party. In 1979, Fulani became the leader of the newly formed independent party New Alliance Party (NAP) and in 1988 she ran for President under the NAP platform. Her campaign slogan "Two Roads Are Better than One" referred to Jesse Jackson's concurrent run for the Democratic Party nomination. She urged voters to vote for Jackson in the primaries and, if he did not receive the nomination, to vote for her in the general election. While neither candidate became president, Fulani became the first woman and the first African American to appear on the ballot in every state.

Rev. Jesse JacksonCourtesy of the Library of Congress

Jesse Jackson has been a consistent leader in the civil rights and political worlds for over forty years. Beginning in the 1960s Jackson has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of African Americans and other minorities. Jackson has run for the president of the United States on two occasions, once in 1984 and again in 1988. Jackson did not win the Democratic Party nomination in either bid for president but he invigorated the campaign with his impassioned oration and his ability to draw out minority voters. Many citizens who had not voted in previous elections came out to show their support and Jackson received 3.5 million votes, 21 percent of the primary vote. Jesse Jackson's involvement in the presidential races of 1984 and 1988 secured his place as one of the most well-known African American leaders in America.

Carol Moseley Braun with other female Senators, 1992Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Much like Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun broke down a barrier in the legislative branch when she became the first black female Senator in 1992. In a heated three-way race with the Democratic incumbent Al Dixon and Alfred Hofeld, a wealthy personal-injury lawyer, Moseley Braun emerged as the unexpected winner. Moseley Braun is shown here (first row, left) with the other female senators elected in 1992, a year noted for the large number of women elected to the Senate. At the time of her election Moseley Braun was the only African American senator and the first African American democrat. She served for only one term and lost her bid for reelection in 1998. Moseley Braun, like Chisholm, went on to run for president. In 2004 Moseley Braun joined the wide array of Democratic candidates in the race for the presidency. Moseley Braun ultimately dropped out of the race in January of 2004 after disappointing results in the primaries. To date Moseley Braun is the only African American woman to have served in the Senate.

Barack Obama with daughter Milia, 2004Courtesy of AP

In 2004 Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Alan Keyes both campaigned to be the next U.S. senator of Illinois. For the first time in US history, two black, major-party candidates were running against each other for a Sentate seat. On 2 November 2004 Barak Obama won this historical race and became the fifth black U.S. senator in the nation's history, following in the footsteps of Hiram R. Revels (1870–1871); Blanche K. Bruce (1875–1881); Edward W. Brooke (1967–1979); and Carol Moseley-Braun (1993–1999). After a successful term as senator, Obama began his next historic political race—a bid for the presidency. On 28 August 2008 Obama became the first black American to be nominated by a major party to be their presidential candidate.

Barack Obama, 2008Courtesy of AP

As the first black and biracial man with a high chance of being the next President of the United States, Barak Obama is in a position to address the issues of race in the United States in a fresh, honest, and straightforward manner. On 18 March 2008 in response to inflammatory remarks made by his former minister, Obama directly addressed the issues of race and politics in America in his historic speech "A More Perfect Union": "For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle—as we did in the OJ trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"