In 2018 voters elected the most diverse Congress in our country’s history, including a number of members whose victories represent milestones in black history: Jahana Hayes, the first black woman to represent Connecticut; Lauren Underwood, the youngest black woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. (Stacey Abrams would’ve become the first black woman ever to serve as governor in the United States, had her opponent not abused his power to purge the rolls of her voters and assure his own election.)
We tend to view these accomplishments as echoes of the nomination and election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. His nomination and victory made him a kind of standard bearer to which every history-making black candidate elected since 2008 has been compared. But for all he and Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and now Hayes and Underwood mean for the advancement of black political leadership, many lesser-known black political figures paved the way for them. So as Black History Month draws to a close, let’s recognize and celebrate the important roles they played making this moment of historic and increasing diversity in American politics possible.
(Source: Library of Congress)
Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress, as a Republican Senator from MIssissippi. Revels was an educator and pastor, who was well known for his moderate stances and powerful oratory.
Revels entered politics in 1868 when he was elected alderman in Natchez, MS, and was elected to the Mississippi State Senate a year later. During his time in the legislature, that body was tasked with filling two U.S. Senate seats that were vacated during the South’s secession from the Union. Legislators wanted to fill one seat with an African American and on February 25, 1870, the Mississippi Senate voted 48-8 to appoint Revels to the U.S. Senate.
As a Senator, Revels advocated for African Americans around the country. He successfully reinstated black Georgia legislators who were removed by moderate white Republicans and Democrats. He also secured employment for black mechanics at the Baltimore Navy Yard and opposed efforts to permit segregation in District of Columbia schools.
Despite his successes, Revels failed to protect African Americans in Mississippi. When the Mississippi constitution was amended to disenfranchise black voters, Revels called on black people to earn the confidence and respect of white people, instead of demanding the provision be overturned. He also supported full citizenship restoration for former Confederates.
At the end of Revels’ term he returned to Mississippi, and eventually left the Republican Party because he thought it had become corrupt. While his impact on the lives of African Americans was a matter of dispute, he was a role model for other southern black legislators who served in Congress until Jim Crow laws drove them out of power.
Carol Moseley Braun
(Source: U.S. Senate)
Caroly Moseley Braun became the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 as a Democrat from Illinois. Her election made her only the second African American to serve in the Senate after the Reconstruction Era. Prior to the U.S. Senate, Moseley Braun served in the Illinois State House of Representatives.
Moseley Braun first entered public office when she was elected to the Illinois House in 1978. She served for 10 years there before becoming Recorder of Deeds. Seeking more out of public office, Moseley Braun ran for the U.S. Senate, challenging Democratic Incumbent Alan Dixon, in the midst of Clarence Thomas’s controversial Supreme Court nomination. She believed that democracy, including Senate seats, should be open to everyone, not just rich, white men. At the time there were only two women, and no people of color serving in the Senate.
During her campaign, Moseley Braun focused on Dixon’s support of Thomas and defeated Dixon and another primary opponent with 38 percent of the vote. She went on to beat her Republican challenger, Richard Williamson by 10 points and was elected as part of the Year of the Woman, when five Democratic women were elected to the U.S. Senate after male senators shepherded Thomas to confirmation despite facing credible sexual harassment allegations.
While serving in the Senate, Moseley Braun became the first woman to serve on the Senate Finance Committee and used her position to advance social issues that affected women and African Americans. On two occasions she went head to head with Jesse Helms, the notoriously racist senator from North Carolina. She first blocked an extension of a federal patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy because it contained a confederate flag, and prevailed a second time when Helms tried to block federal dollars from funding the Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Commission.
Despite the symbolic importance of Moseley Braun’s election, her term was filled with several controversies and she lost her re-election. Making matters worse, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee abandoned her campaign while her Repbulican opponent, Peter Fitzgerald, spent $12 million of his own money against her. She went on to serve as U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and in 2000 and in 2004 she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president, making her the second African American woman to attempt it after Shirley Chisolm.
The abrupt end of her political career is illustrative of the burden women of color routinely face in politics and other professional realms. Unlike Moesely Braun, the other four women elected to the U.S. Senate with her served multiple terms.
(Source: Associated Press)
Coleman Young was the first African American mayor of Detroit, MI. He served five terms and committed himself to improving race relations during one of the city’s most difficult eras.
Young was born in Tuscaloosa, AL, but spent the majority of his life in Detroit. After high school he worked at Ford Motor Company and joined the United Auto Workers. He was later drafted during WWII to serve with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, and organized a demonstration that led to the unlawful arrest of 150 African American officers who attempted to integrate an officer’s club.
After his military service, Young returned to Detroit and founded the National Negro Labor Council, which contributed to his radical reputation. He was called before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, suspected and accused of being a member of the Communist Party. During his testimony, Young refused to confirm or deny his political affiliation, and instead used his appearance to draw attention to the un-American treatment African Americans faced throughout the country. His performance played well back in Detroit’s black community, but had the opposite effect in the white community, which forced him out of the labor movement.
Young first ran for public office in 1964 when he was elected to the Michigan State Senate, where he passed a law that required arbitration in disputes between public-sector unions and municipalities.
After serving in the state senate for 10 years, Young ran to be mayor of Detroit. At the time, the city was suffering severe decline, accelerated by the 1967 Detroit riots. Young ran on a platform of reducing police violence, improving race relations, and revitalizing the economy. During his first term, Young disbanded the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets) Unit, which had been accused of killing 22 people and arresting hundreds of people without cause. He also integrated the city’s police department, increasing the percentage of African American police officers from 10 to 50 percent. During the rest of his five terms, Young attempted to advance affirmative action efforts to ensure the city employed more African Americans and provided more integrated housing.
Despite Young’s best efforts, he was not ultimately able to pull the city’s black and white residents together. He was also unable to stop the exodus of white middle-class residents, and the city’s population declined by 400,000 people. In Young’s fifth and final term, Malice Green was killed in a fatal police beating. The incident became a symbol of Young’s inability to realize his goals for his city.
Young spent his entire career fighting to improve the lives of African Americans, and demanding equality in all facets of life. This undoubtedly alienated many white residents, but embodied the focused, thoughtful leadership that black voters elevate when they elect people committed to addressing racism and discrimination. Unfortunately, it also underscores the resistance black political leaders face when they challenge the status quo and improve the lives of marginalized people.
(Source: U.S. House of Representatives)
Barbara Jordan was the first woman and African American ever elected to the Texas Senate and the first African American woman elected to Congress from the South. She was a lawyer and educator, well known for her oratory and ability to win people over. She gained national prominence after calling for Nixon’s impeachment.
Jordan became active in politics when she campaigned for the Kennedy/Johnson presidential ticket in 1960. She subsequently ran for the Texas legislature, losing two times before she was elected to the State Senate on her third attempt.
When Jordan first arrived in the Texas Senate, she was not well received by the 30 other white male senators, but eventually won them over and was elected president pro tempore. While seconding the nomination, one of Jordan’s male colleagues said, “What can I say? Black is beautiful.”
While in the legislature Jordan helped pass the state’s first minimum-wage law and create the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission.
In 1972 Jordan was elected to the House of Representatives. She faced a primary during her candidacy and was attacked for being too close to the white establishment. The attacks didn’t stick and she won the primary and general election with 80 percent and 81 percent of the vote, respectively.
While in Congress, Jordan continued to focus on the needs of her constituents, much to the dismay of civil rights and women’s groups who thought she should focus on the collective issues faced by women and African Americans. She considered herself neither a black politician nor a female politician, only a professional politician.
Jordan was a member of the House Judiciary Committee amid the Watergate scandal. During the televised proceedings she captured the nation’s attention when she called for Nixon’s impeachment stating, “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” The response was immense, thrusting her into the national spotlight as a respected lawmaker.
Jordan again flexed her oratorical skills at the 1976 Democratic National Convention when, during a keynote address, she told the audience that her presence there was evidence that “the American dream need not forever be deferred.”
Although Jordan was expected to continue her political career, she finished her final term in 1979. It was later revealed that she had developed multiple sclerosis around the time of her retirement. Her diagnosis didn’t end her public service altogether, though. She went on to become the Chair of Public Policy at University of Texas, Austin, and remained very active in Democratic politics.
In 1994 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and two years later she passed away from pneumonia, stemming from her battle with leukemia.
Jordan was a pioneer throughout her career, despite taking a path distinct from other black trailblazers who prioritized their identities in their politics. Instead she gained the support, trust, and admiration of her white colleagues and was able to leverage that into outcomes for women and people of color. Although some questioned her affiliation with white political power structures, she became an icon of a style of black leadership—non-revolutionary yet history-making—that has marked the styles of her successors, including Obama himself.
This list is by no means complete, but demonstrates the important role black politicians have played in shaping our country. It’s also a reminder that the people we elect in our lifetimes, including later this year, will have an impact on our country for generations to come.