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The speech given on the floor of the House of Representatives by Congressman Robert Brown Elliott on January 6, 1874 opens a window on the radical and swift changes wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction, reveals the hope and optimism of that particular historical moment, and serves as a stark reminder of the nation's ultimate failures.
Born in England, Elliott had served in the Royal Navy before emigrating to the United States and settling in Charleston, South Carolina in 1867. There he became an associate editor of a freedmen's newspaper and an emerging leader in the Reconstruction politics of South Carolina. Elliott represented South Carolina's 3rd District in the 42nd and 43rd Congress and counted himself among the first black Congressmen in the nation's history. On the sixth of January, 1874, he rose to give a blistering speech in defense of the Civil Rights Bill that Senator Charles Sumner, continued to push through both houses of Congress. The bill made it illegal for places of public accommodation and entertainment to make distinctions between black and white patrons, and prohibited discrimination on account of race in public schools, churches, transportation, cemeteries, and on juries. Sumner thought that "very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented" before the United States Congress, and spent the better part of four years championing the bill, which only passed after his death in 1875.
When he took to the floor of the House of Representatives on January 6th, Elliott particularly sought to rebut the arguments of two Southern Democrats - Kentuckian James F. Beck and former Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. Just one day before Stephens had spoken in opposition to the bill. The author of the famous "Cornerstone" speech again admitted that slavery caused the war, but declared "the cause is now forever removed," and rejected the need for further national protections for African Americans. Stephens invoked the self-evident truth of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence, but opined: "This truth was never meant, in my opinion, to convey the idea that all men were created equal in all respects, either in physical, mental, or moral development." He insisted he held no prejudices, but railed against the idea of desegregated accommodations: "I do not believe the colored people of Georgia have any desire for mixed schools, and very little indeed, for mixed churches." He rejected the Constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill and concluded with an impassioned defense of states rights - the same arguments that Southern segregationist lawmakers recycled for the next century. "The United States," Stephens said, "still exist as a Federal republic, and are not yet merged into a centralized empire."
Robert Brown Elliott had built a reputation for his oratorical skills, and deployed these skills to full effect on this day in the House of Representatives, in front of a gallery packed with African American spectators. He began:
While I am sincerely grateful for this high mark of courtesy that has been accorded to me by this House, it is a matter of regret to me that it is necessary at this day that I should rise in the presence of an American Congress to advocate a bill which simply asserts equal rights and equal public privileges for all classes of American citizens. I regret, sir, that the dark hue of my skin may lend a color to the imputation that I am controlled by motives personal to myself in advocacy of this great measure of national justice. Sir, the motive that impels me is restricted by no such narrow boundary, but is as broad as your Constitution. I advocate it, sir, because it is right. The bill, however, not only appeals to your justice, but it demands a response from your gratitude.Elliott offered a history lesson on the bravery of African American soldiers in the Revolution and War of 1812. He highlighted the loyalty and service of African Americans to the Union during the Civil War, while sniping at the record of Beck's Kentucky - "a State which answered the call of the Republic in 1861, when treason thundered at the very gates of the capital by coldly declaring her neutrality in the impending struggle."
Elliott unleashed a point-by-point rebuttal of the Constitutional arguments laid out by Stephens, Beck, and others. He carefully recounted the limits of the Supreme Court's recent Slaughterhouse decision and demonstrated why it did not affect Congress's ability to pass the Civil Rights Bill.
Elliott reserved particular scorn for the former Confederate Vice President:
...In this discussion I cannot and will not forget that the welfare and rights of my whole race in this country are involved. When, therefore, the honorable gentleman from Georgia lends his voice and influence to defeat this measure, I do not shrink from saying that it is not from him that the American House of Representatives should take lessons in matters touching human rights or the joint relations of the State and national governments. While the honorable gentleman contented himself with harmless speculations in his study, or in the columns of newspaper, we might well smile at the impotence of his efforts to turn back the advancing tide of opinion and progress; but, when he comes again upon this national arena, and throws himself with all his power and influence across the path which leads to the full enfranchisement of my race, I meet him only as an adversary; nor shall age or any other consideration restrain me from saying that he now offers this Government, which he has done his utmost to destroy, a very poor return for its magnanimous treatment, to come here and seek to continue, by the assertion of doctrines obnoxious to the true principles of our Government, the burdens and oppressions which rest upon five millions of his countrymen who never failed to lift their earnest prayers for the success of this Government when the gentleman was seeking to break up the Union of these States and to blot the American Republic from the galaxy of nations. [Loud applause.]In a powerful conclusion, Elliott laid out the stakes of the bill:
Sir, it is scarcely twelve years since that gentleman shocked the civilized world by announcing the birth of a government which rested on human slavery as its corner-stone. The progress of events has swept away that pseudo-government which rested on greed, pride, and tyranny; and the race whom he then ruthlessly spurned and trampled on are here to meet him in debate, and to demand that the rights which are enjoyed by their former oppressors--who vainly sought to overthrow the Government which they could not prostitute to the base uses of slavery--shall be accorded to those who even in the darkest of slavery kept their allegiance true to freedom and the Union. Sir, the gentleman from Georgia has learned much since 1861; but he is still a laggard.
Technically, this bill is to decide upon the civil status of the colored American citizen; a point disputed at the very formation of our present Government, when by a short-sighted policy, a policy repugnant to true republican government, one negro counted as three-fifths of a man. The logical result of this mistake of the framers of the Constitution strengthened the cancer of slavery, which finally spread its poisonous tentacles over the southern portion of the body-politic. To arrest its growth and save the nation we have passed through the harrowing operation of intestine war, dreaded at all times, resorted to at the last extremity, like the surgeon's knife, but absolutely necessary to extirpate the disease which threatened with the life of the nation the overthrow of civil and political liberty on this continent. In that dire extremity the members of the race which I have the honor in part to represent--the race which pleads for justice at your hands today, forgetful of their inhuman and brutalizing servitude at the South, their degradation and ostracism at the North--flew willingly and gallantly to the support of the national Government. Their sufferings, assistance, privations, and trials in the swamps and the rice-fields, their valor on the land and on the sea, in part of the ever-glorious record which makes up the history of a nation preserved, and might, should I urge the claim, incline your respect and guarantee their rights and privileges as citizens of our great common Republic. But I remember that valor, devotion, and loyalty are not always rewarded according to their just deserts, and that some after the battle who have borne the brunt of the fray may, through neglect or contempt, be assigned to a subordinate place, while the enemies in war may be preferred to the sufferers.All seven African American members of the 43rd Congress spoke passionately in support of the Civil Rights Bill and offered personal testimony of the types of discrimination they had personally faced. Congressman and former U.S. General Benjamin Butler sponsored the bill and shepherded it through the House. Speaking of his support for the Bill, Butler recalled an engagement in Virginia in which he commanded black soldiers who had died in battle:
As I looked on their bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun to heaven as if in mute appeal against the wrong of the country for which they had given their lives...feeling I had wronged them in the past...I swore to myself a solemn oath...to defend the rights of these men who had given their blood for me and my country.The Civil Rights Act finally became law in 1875, though without several key provisions such as that prohibiting racial discrimination in schools. The Grant Administration declined to enforce the law. The Supreme Court effectively overturned the law in 1883, arguing that the 13th and 14th amendments did not empower Congress to prohibit racial discrimination by private individuals. Historians consider the Civil Rights Act as the last major piece of Reconstruction legislation passed by Congress. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 later reenacted portions of the act almost a century later.