On February 24, 2009, Philip Dray spoke at Boston University as part of the African American Studies Program’s Spring 2009 Lecture Series, presenting research from his book, “Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen.”
Dray’s book chronicles the sixteen black Southerners who were elected to the U.S. Congress during the Reconstruction era of the 1860s and 1870s. These black legislators collaborate with their white Radical Republican counterparts to pass legislation to protect the rights of the newly freed African American slave population, advocating reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. From the 1860s to the mid 1870s, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1875, were passed to try to insure equal rights for African Americans.
After the Reconstruction era was over and Union troops left the Southern states, however, Southerners began to harass their African American communities and roll back the legal protections that insured black equality. As Jim Crow laws were enacted across the South, black citizens lost the rights that they had gained in the Reconstruction era and the black legislators were gradually voted out of office.
This holds important lessons for today. As Republicans have enacted voter suppression laws in the Rust Belt and the South, as the Trump administration has tried to roll back laws protecting the rights of women, Muslims and LGBTQ people, and as President Trump has scapegoated immigrants and Muslims, it’s important to remember that the rights that we have achieved can always be reversed unless we stay vigilant and defend those rights.