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Before Obama: Remembering Black Reconstruction Era Politicians

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Every February, we celebrate the accomplishments and sacrifices of outstanding African Americans. Why? Because it allows us to pay homage to our ancestors and reconnect with our storied past. We have endured much long-suffering as a race but, we continue to persevere and survive. For over five years now, I have devoted my life to researching Black Reconstruction Era Politicians, most notably the late-great John Roy Lynch. Between 1865 and 1877, about two thousand blacks held elective and appointed offices in the South, but these men faced astounding odds. From 1870-1891, twenty-two black men were elected to the U.S. Congress. These were exceptional men who lived during an exceptional time.

Instead of being lauded, they were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their white political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob these black lawmakers of their bases of support. A few, such as the senator from Mississippi, Blanche K. Bruce, are well known, but most have languished in obscurity. In addition, when modern historians have profiled them, they're often used as scapegoats for the utter disaster that was Reconstruction.

In my forthcoming two-volume book, Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians (Praeger, October 2012), myself and twenty-one other contributors examine the leadership and contributions of black politicians during the Reconstruction era. This collection of biographical essays profiles diverse men whose efforts during Reconstruction should not be overlooked. This two-volume set provides an intimate look at black elected and appointed officials of the Reconstruction era, illuminating how they fostered the development of a parallel civil society within black communities.

In addition, it also explains how their contributions set the stage for the Civil Rights movement and the world's consciousness of the need for equality. If these brave souls had not found the courage to stand, the election of President Barack Obama would not have been possible. It is my hope that America embraces the opportunity to receive background information on the men who laid the groundwork for the election of future black politicians.

Although history has judged these men by the color of their skin and not by the content of their characters, they will receive their redress. The accomplishments of these politicians will not be forgotten. After researching these men, I have come to one simple conclusion: it was not the intellectual abilities of these men that held them back; it was racism, manifested through federal and state legislation.

Unfortunately, they were too far ahead of their time to be appreciated. Yet they still pioneered paths to power and influence that modern black politicians tread today, walking inexorably in the foot traces these towering figures left behind as a legacy to the future. This article is dedicated to history's stepchildren: to those who have had their stories misrepresented and distorted by the annals of history; to those who have had their accomplishments and skills muted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, creed, nationality, affiliation, or sexual orientation.

Because they cannot speak from the grave, this article will be their redress. Although I lack the power to give them the recompense that they deserve, I will fight to ensure that their legacies will not be forgotten. I would like to thank the brave men and women throughout history who have stood up to prejudice, rejection, and exclusion to claim their full rights as citizens of the republic and inheritors of the imperishable ideal that all are created equal.