Sunday, January 19, 2020

“A Nation of Croakers”

Richard Harvey Cain (1825–1887)
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

“Hon. Robert B. Elliott, of South Carolina, delivering his great speech on ‘Civil Rights’ in the House of Representatives, January 6, 1874.” Panel from The Shackle Broken by the Genius of Freedom, hand-colored lithograph on paper, 1874, published by E. Sachse & Co., Baltimore.
On January 5, 1874, John T. Harris, a Democratic congressman from Virginia, asserted during his speech against the civil rights bill under debate, “I say there is not one gentleman upon this floor who can honestly say he really believes that the colored man is created his equal.” Alonzo J. Ransier, a black congressman from South Carolina, called out, “I can,” to which Harris replied: “Of course you can; but I am speaking to the white men of the House; and, Mr. Speaker, I do not wish to be interrupted again by him.”

Later, Harris asked “every gentleman on the other side of the House” to admit they were bound to respect the prejudice “that the colored man was inferior to the white.” Ransier again objected, saying “I deny that,” and Harris responded: “I do not allow you to interrupt me. Sit down; I am talking to white men; I am talking to gentlemen.”

The next day, during his own speech in favor of the bill, Robert Brown Elliot, another African American representative from South Carolina, responded to Harris:
To the diatribe of the gentleman from Virginia, [Mr. HARRIS,] who spoke on yesterday, and who so far transcended the limits of decency and propriety as to announce upon this floor that his remarks were addressed to white men alone, I shall have no word of reply. Let him feel that a negro was not only too magnanimous to smite him in his weakness, but was even charitable enough to grant him the mercy of his silence. [Laughter and applause on the floor and in the galleries.] I shall, sir, leave to others less charitable the unenviable and fatiguing task of sifting out of that mass of chaff the few grains of sense that may, perchance, deserve notice. Assuring the gentleman that the negro in this country aims at a higher degree of intellect than that exhibited by him in this debate, I cheerfully commend him to the commiseration of all intelligent men the world over—black men as well as white men.
Before Ransier and Elliot became members of Congress in 1870 and 1871, respectively, they worked for Rev. Richard Harvey Cain, who had established the South Carolina Leader newspaper in 1866 (renamed the Missionary Record two years later). Cain had hired the two men as associate editors, and in 1873 he joined his former employees in Congress after he won election for South Carolina’s newly created fifth House seat, receiving 71% of the votes—38,000 more than the second-place candidate, a white Democrat. The trio were three of seven black representatives in the 43rd U.S. Congress, four of whom were in the delegation from South Carolina. A recent arrival to the state, Cain had been an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor in Brooklyn, New York, when he was installed as pastor of the Emanuel Church in Charleston. His tenure was an extraordinary success; within seven years, the congregation had become the largest in the state.

Cain delivered four significant speeches on the civil rights bill during the year it was hotly debated: two in January 1874, after the bill had been introduced in the House, and two in the days before its passage in early February 1875. (It was approved by the Senate on February 27 and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant four days later.) Cain’s speeches are particularly notable for his vigorous defense of the bill’s most controversial provision, prohibiting discrimination because “of race, color, or previous condition of servitude . . . by trustees, commissioners, superintendents, teachers, and other officers of common schools and public institutions of learning.” In order to get the bill through Congress, however, Cain and his associates ultimately agreed to drop the insistence on public school desegregation.

The final, much-weakened Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited discrimination in “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement”; an additional section barred disqualification on the basis of race for service on a state or federal jury. The law, which required a wronged individual to initiate a lawsuit, was virtually ignored by the Grant and Hayes administrations, and in 1883 the Supreme Court declared the major sections of the act unconstitutional, with Justice John Marshall Harlan writing the lone dissent. The Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government the power to prohibit discrimination by state and local governments (e.g., jury service), but not by individuals and businesses or other privately held entities (hotels, trains, theaters, etc.). A century later, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 would be written to rely instead upon Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause of Article One of the Constitution.

At the end of Cain’s first term, his seat was eliminated by reapportionment. Because his home district was represented by a friend and ally, Joseph Rainey (the fourth black member in the South Carolina delegation in 1874), Cain declined to run again and returned his attention to his ministry and local politics for two years. In November 1876 he ran for the House seat in an inland district adjacent to Charleston and received 62 percent of the vote. His white opponent, Democratic state legislator Michael O’Connor, contested Cain’s victory—twice—on the grounds of improperly filed credentials and the bias of vote tallying officials, but he was rebuffed decidedly both times by Congress. In 1878, with the end of Reconstruction, Cain was swept out of office along with all other black members of the House; this time, O’Connor defeated the white Republican candidate in a close election. Only one African American remained in Congress: Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, of Mississippi.

For our Story of the Week selection, we present the second speech that Cain delivered in January 1874. Like his colleagues, he not only argued for the proposed legislation but was also obliged to defend himself, as well as all American black citizens, against insults and hostility from various Democratic congressmen—and he did so with the grace and pointed humor that endeared him to his Republican colleagues as well as his congregation in Charleston.

Notes: Cain’s speech was delivered primarily in response to Robert B. Vance, a Democratic congressman from North Carolina, who spoken against the bill two weeks earlier. Also mentioned are William M. Robbins, Democrat from North Carolina, and Samuel S. Cox, Democrat from New York. Cain’s mocking reference to crows and croaking, from which this speech gets its title, refers to an address given earlier that day by Robbins, who denounced “the leveling spirit” of “so-called universal equality men” and sarcastically suggested that the eagle be replaced as the national emblem by the crow, whose “plumage is of the favorite color, so popular with the dominant party.”

Cain mentions achievements by black soldiers in Sherman’s army, including the regiments among the Union troops that occupied Charleston, South Carolina, on February 18, 1865, and Richmond on April 3, 1865. “Missa Douglas” (Margaret Crittenden Douglass), a white woman born in Washington, D.C., and raised in South Carolina, opened a school for free black children in Norfolk, Virginia, in June 1852. Douglass was arrested in May 1853 and charged with violating the state law against assembling African Americans, free or enslaved, for the purpose of teaching them to read and write; she was sentenced to one month in jail. On pages 482–83, Cain cites statistics on “ignorance” among poor white and black residents; as is clear from many of his other speeches, the figures refer to surveys of illiteracy and school attendance rates.

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MR. SPEAKER, I had supposed “this cruel war was over,” and that we had entered upon an era of peace, prosperity, and future success as a nation. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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