Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
A few months ago, an article in The New York Times Magazine portrayed Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy as marking the “end” of traditional black politics and the emergence of a new generation of black leaders whose careers began after the civil rights struggle, and who strive to represent not simply black voters but the wider electorate. “For a lot of younger African-Americans,” wrote Matt Bai, “the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of the parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle–to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.”
Bai’s analysis assumes that until recently only one kind of politics existed among African-Americans: a politics focused solely on race and righting the wrongs of racism. Yet divisions among black politicians are nothing new. Some politicians have defined themselves primarily as representatives of a black community; others have identified with predominantly white, nonracial parties like the Populists, Socialists or Communists. Some have been nationalists who believe that racial advancement comes only through community self-determination; others have worked closely with white allies. These differences go back as far as debates among black abolitionists before the Civil War. Then, as now, black politics was as complex and multifaceted as any other kind of politics, and one of the valuable implications of the new book Capitol Men (although its author, Philip Dray, does not quite put it this way) is that Obama’s candidacy represents not so much a repudiation of the black political tradition as an affirmation of one of its long-established, vigorous strands.
Of the thousands of men and women who have served in the Senate or as governors since the ratification of the Constitution, only nine have been African-American. Three of the nine hold office today: Senator Obama and Governors David Paterson of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Well over a century ago, during the turbulent era of Reconstruction, they were preceded by another three: Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both senators from Mississippi, and P.B.S. Pinchback, briefly the governor of Louisiana. The gulf between this trio and Obama, Paterson and Patrick is a striking reminder of the almost insurmountable barriers that have kept African-Americans from the highest offices in the land. It also underscores how remarkable, if temporary, a transformation in American life was wrought by Reconstruction. Revels, Bruce and Pinchback were only the tip of a large iceberg–an estimated 2,000 black men served in some kind of elective office during that era. The emergence of these men in the aftermath of the Civil War was living proof of an idea expressed after an earlier period of turmoil and bloodshed: “all that extent of capacity” of ordinary people, invisible in normal times, wrote Tom Paine in The Rights of Man, “never fails to appear in revolutions.”