You Gotta Know These Black American Legislators
- Hiram Revels (1827–1901) was a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1870–1871. Revels, who was born free in North Carolina, was of mixed ancestry; he was both the first person with Black ancestry, and the first person with Native American ancestry, to serve in Congress. He was not popularly elected (the 17th Amendment had not yet been passed); rather, he was chosen by the Mississippi state senate. Democrats objected to Revels (a Republican) being seated; they claimed that since the 14th Amendment had only been ratified in 1868, Revels had only been a citizen for two years, not the nine years required to serve in the Senate. As a senator, Revels successfully argued that Georgia should not be readmitted to the Union until it allowed Black persons to serve in its state legislature. After his time in the senate, Revels served as the first president of what is now Alcorn State University, America’s first land-grant HBCU.
- P. B. S. Pinchback (1837–1921) was the first Black governor in U.S. history, serving briefly as governor of Louisiana from 1872–1873. Pinchback was the son of a white slaveowner and a freed slave. After becoming a state senator in 1868, he was appointed lieutenant governor in 1871 after Lieutenant Governor Oscar Dunn (also a Black man) died in office. When Governor Henry Clay Warmoth was impeached in December 1872, Pinchback became acting governor through the end of Warmoth’s term in January 1873. Although Pinchback was selected as a U.S. senator in 1872, Louisiana’s white Democrats effectively blocked him from ever taking his seat. After leaving politics, Pinchback became an active member of the Comité des Citoyens, a group of New Orleans citizens who organized Homer Plessy’s challenge to Louisiana’s segregated transportation laws, leading to the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.
- Edward Brooke III (1919–2015) was the Massachusetts Attorney General from 1963–1967 and a U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 1967–1979. He was the first Black state attorney general and the first popularly-elected Black U.S. senator. Brooke was a moderate Republican who was often criticized for his opposition to protest movements and activists; in one speech, he controversially grouped Lester Maddox with Stokely Carmichael as “extremists of White Power and Black Power.” Brooke co-authored the Fair Housing Act of 1968 with Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale. Brooke was the first Senate Republican to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation during Watergate.
- Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005), who represented part of Brooklyn in the U.S. House from 1969–1983, was the first Black woman elected to Congress. She used the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed,” which was also the title of her first autobiography. Chisholm was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus (in 1971) and the Congressional Women’s Caucus (in 1977). Chisholm spearheaded a 1975 bill that expanded the federal school lunch program. In 1972, Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first Black candidate and first woman candidate for the nomination; she received 152 delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. During the primary campaign, she visited segregationist candidate George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot.
- Andrew Young Jr. (1932–) served as a U.S. representative from Georgia from 1973–1977. Young was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when Martin Luther King Jr. was the group’s president; Young is one of the men shown pointing in the direction of the shot in the notable photo taken moments after King’s assassination in 1968. In 1977 Jimmy Carter appointed Young as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Young’s tenure in that role ended following a controversy in which he met with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Young served as mayor of Atlanta from 1982–1990 and was the co-chair of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
- John Lewis (1940–2020) represented Georgia in the U.S. House from 1987 until his death in 2020. Lewis was a leader of the civil rights movement: he was one of the original Freedom Riders, served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis worked with Hosea Williams to organize the first Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, which was brutally stopped by Alabama State Troopers, who attacked the marchers and fractured Lewis’s skull after the marchers passed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 2016, Lewis was among the House Democrats who led a sit-in protest in the House chamber demanding action on gun-control legislation. Shortly before Lewis’s 2020 death, he wrote a brief essay noting “Together, you can redeem the soul of our nation.”
- Carol Moseley Braun (1947–) was a U.S. senator from Illinois from 1993–1999. She was the second popularly-elected Black U.S. senator (after Brooke), making her the first Black woman and the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate. Before becoming a senator, Moseley Braun was a state representative and Cook County Recorder of Deeds. In the Senate, Moseley Braun and Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski successfully challenged a policy stating that women could not wear pants on the Senate floor. Moseley Braun controversially met with and subsequently defended the actions of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. Moseley Braun lost her 1998 re-election bid; she ran unsuccessfully in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary.
- Barack Obama (1961–) was a U.S. senator from Illinois from 2005–2008 and was the U.S. president from 2009–2017. Obama rose to national prominence in 2004, while an Illinois state senator and candidate for the U.S. Senate; in that year, he gave a fiery keynote address at the Democratic National Convention titled “The Audacity of Hope,” which later became the title of his second book, after his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father. Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, then—with running mate Joe Biden—beat Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 presidential election during the Great Recession. Among the signature legislation passed during the Obama administration was the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, the latter of which overhauled financial regulations and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
- Kamala Harris (1964–) served as California’s attorney general from 2011–2017 and as a U.S. senator from California from 2017–2021. After dropping out of the 2020 Democractic primary, Harris was selected as Joe Biden’s running mate in the 2020 presidential election; Harris subsequently became the first person of color, first Asian-American, and first woman to be vice president in U.S. history. Prior to Harris, two other women (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin) had been unsuccessful vice presidential nominees. Harris began her political career by defeating incumbent Terence Hallinan in 2003 to become San Francisco’s district attorney. During her time as California’s attorney general, she continued her predecessor Jerry Brown’s policy of refusing to defend Proposition 8 (California’s ban on gay marriage) in court; Harris later officiated at the wedding of Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, parties to the Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry. Harris’s father is from Jamaica; her mother is from India.
- Cory Booker (1969–) was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey from 2006–2013 and has been a U.S. senator from New Jersey since 2013. Booker’s first (unsuccessful) campaign for the Newark mayorship, in 2002, was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight. While Booker was mayor of Newark, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark’s schools. When U.S. senator Frank Lautenberg died in 2013, Booker won a special election to fill Lautenberg’s seat, then kept the seat in the 2014 regular election. In the Senate, Booker was part of a coalition that supported the 2018 First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill. Booker ran unsuccessfully in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer David Reinstein.