BY MARK Y.A. DAVIES
President Trump’s racist comments about four American persons of color in the U.S. House of Representatives in which he declared they should “go back to where they came from,” and the unwillingness of the vast majority of Republican members of Congress to condemn Trump’s comments, led me to think of another time an American person of color was the target of racism in the United States Congress.
The 24th governor of Louisiana, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, was the first black governor of a U.S. state from 1872-1873 and was selected by the Louisiana Legislature to represent the state as one of its two U.S. senators. Gov. Pinchback should have become the first black U.S. senator and was scheduled to take his seat in the Senate in March of 1873, but the racism of the majority of the senators serving at that time kept him from being seated.
Photo: Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback/Library of Congress
For three long years, Pinchback was denied the seat for which he was duly elected and the people of Louisiana were denied their constitutional right to full representation in the U.S. Senate. Racist senators attacked the legitimacy of the vote that elected him, and they attacked his character.
The window of opportunity for Gov. Pinchback to take his Senate seat was closed for good in 1876 when the U.S. Senate voted 32-29 not to seat Pinchback – 12 senators did not even show up to vote [Matthew Lynch, Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians, Volume 1, p. 231]. The stalling game by the racist U.S. senators was successful as by 1876 the systems of white supremacy had retaken political control of Louisiana and the rest of the South.
One U.S. senator who was in opposition to Pinchback was particularly candid about his racist motivations when he said in an interview that he “would give that n—-r some sleepless nights before he gets his seat” [Lynch, p. 228]. This particular senator from Kentucky, a person who had enslaved a number of persons before the Civil War, was serving for the second time in the U.S. Senate.
The first time that he served was during the Andrew Johnson administration, a president whose racism led him to oppose the 14th Amendment and to seek the quick return of southern states to the Union without protections for black persons. When Andrew Johnson was impeached and brought before the Senate for his trial, he was acquitted by only one vote, and this particular U.S. senator from Kentucky was one of the votes for acquittal.
The racist senator from Kentucky clearly wished that Gov. Pinchback, a black man, would “go back to where he belonged.” He did not see Pinchback as an American, he simply viewed him as a “n—-r” who had no place in the U.S. Senate, and because of people like this racist senator from Kentucky, Gov. Pinchback never took his rightful place in history as America’s first black U.S. senator.
That racist senator from Kentucky, Thomas Clay McCreery, was my great-great-great grandfather, a man I was taught to revere in my childhood, a man’s whose Senate portrait I inherited. He would not be the last senator from Kentucky to enable racism against persons of color in Congress.
The current president of the United States sounds a lot like that racist 19th Century senator from Kentucky, and I reject the racism of both these men.
Unlike Gov. Pinchback and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, President Trump and my great-great-great grandfather are not worthy of the offices they have held because of their racist words and their racist ways, and America will never be great under the leadership of such racist persons.
– Mark Y.A. Davies is the Wimberly Professor of Social and Ecological Ethics and director of the World House Institute for Social and Ecological Responsibility at Oklahoma City University. Click herefor more of his essays.