None in a hundred

February 01, 2004|By Mark Weber

THIS YEAR'S theme for Black History Month is the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Thurgood Marshall's victory in the case eventually landed him a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court - the first black justice.

If Clarence Thomas' succession has established a de facto African-American position on the court, that's worth celebrating. It would mean that blacks have achieved representation on the court roughly proportional to their numbers in the general population. (How many blacks the conservative Justice Thomas speaks for is another matter.)

Unfortunately, there's much less to celebrate about what history has wrought for blacks in Congress, where the under-representation of African-Americans remains staggering - a national embarrassment and a poignant reminder of endemic prejudice and inequality a half-century after Brown.

Blacks got their first shot at representation in Congress when the federal government - for a brief period after the Civil War - protected the voting rights of blacks in the South. Any chance for representation prior to the Civil War had been doomed in the South by slavery and in the North by the small number of blacks, who many states nevertheless prohibited from voting.

Joseph Rainey - the first black elected to Congress - won a seat in the House in 1870 representing a district in South Carolina. By 1877, 14 blacks from Southern states had served a total of 21 terms in the House, and two blacks from the South had served briefly in the Senate. The two, both Mississippi Republicans, were Hiram R. Revels, who served from 1870 to 1871, and Blanche K. Bruce, in office from 1875 to 1881.

During this period, blacks captured about 2 percent of the available representation in Congress - far from ideal, since they made up about 13 percent of the population.

But even this comparatively meager gain threatened the racial caste system in the South, fueling white determination to strip blacks of their voting rights. The hard-won victories of blacks proved no match for the literacy test, poll tax, white primary, violence and economic intimidation. In the 1880 election, the Senate reverted to traditional monochromatic white; the House followed in 1900.

The African-American struggle for representation in Congress would be no inexorable March of Progress.

By 1900, many Southern blacks began voting with their feet to escape disfranchisement, economic depravation and racial violence - particularly a surge in lynchings. These North-bound blacks laid the groundwork for a second shot at black representation in Congress. Gathering in congressional districts in Chicago, New York and Detroit, Northern blacks captured their first seat in the House in 1928 with the election of Oscar De Priest, a Republican representing a district on the South Side of Chicago.

Southern blacks didn't return to the House until 1973. That's when federal power, authorized by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, kicked in for the second time to protect the African-American franchise in the South.

As the growing number of Northern blacks in the House was augmented by the return of Southern blacks, African-Americans moved closer to the ideal of proportional representation. In the elections of 1966 through 2000, blacks captured 5.4 percent of the available representation.

In the House today, blacks have about 8.5 percent of the seats compared with about 13 percent of the population. Not ideal, but not bad.

The 20th century African-American assault on the Senate didn't fare as well. The Senate remained all white until Massachusetts elected Edward W. Brooke in 1966. After completing his second term in 1978, 14 years elapsed without an African-American in the Senate. Carol Moseley Braun secured a seat in Illinois in 1992, but served only one term. Since then, the nation has been without a black senator for another five years.

What institution has been as immune as the Senate to the post-World War II revolution in race relations?

Proportional representation today would seat 13 black senators.

Liberal, moderate, or even conservative, they would be conscious of the African-American struggle for justice and equality.

What difference would that make?

For one thing, the yawning gap between the nation's democratic ideals and the unequal distribution of political power would narrow, thereby validating and encouraging the aspirations of the less advantaged.

Thirteen black senators would rock the citadel of white power and privilege - and startle the Republic. After all, the nation's four black senators served for just 25 of the Senate's 216 years, and there's never been more than one black senator at any time.

This invasion of the Senate would quicken the agendas of African-Americans - agendas long the victim of benign, and not so benign, national neglect. The African-American 13 would wield power with black history as their guide, mounting new national initiatives to improve the lives of all citizens down under.

Unfortunately, their 13 votes alone wouldn't fix Detroit's schools, stop racial profiling by the Los Angeles Police Department or create decent-paying jobs in Mississippi anytime soon.

But blacks would finally have a more equitable share of national legislative power. Now that would be worth celebrating.

Mark Weber teaches history and political science at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and is co-author of Critical Thinking and American Government.

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