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The first Black U.S. congressman championed for civil rights in 1871, paving the way for the Jan. 6 hearings. His story is why representation matters

June 14, 2022, 8:46 PM UTC

Former U.S. Representative Joseph Hayne Rainey, now long among the elders, understood the assignment from the start.

Rainey was born into an enslaved family in Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 21, 1832. His father, a barber, reportedly saved enough money to buy the freedom of the entire family. Escaping conscription into the Confederate Army, Rainey fled to Bermuda where he prospered as a barber and esteemed member of the community. He returned to America in 1866 to discover that the population of free Black people formed a majority in his home state. It was a dangerous time, and bitter white Confederate sympathizers were encouraged by President Andrew Johnson to regain power where and how they could. “This is a country for white men…As long as I am president, it shall be a government by white men,” said Johnson.

Rainey understood that people like the Proud Boys—and a future president intent on encouraging them—were possible.

Rainey became the first Black member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1870, after years of bearing witness to racist terrorist attacks, state-sanctioned oppression, assassinations, and death threats as a member of the majority-Black South Carolina state assembly. So, when he stepped forward in support of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act which called for federal forces to address unchecked Klan violence and allowed for federal district attorneys to prosecute any racist terrorist—even the elected ones—he did not come to play. “Tell me nothing of a constitution which fails to shelter beneath its rightful power the people of a country!” he said to the challengers. The bill, which was part of a series of necessary civil rights protection acts, was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.

This history is instructive for many reasons, not the least of which is how painfully it mirrors the issues of today. But it is this law, and Rainey’s extraordinary foresight, that has played a key role in the current January 6 investigation.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the longest-serving African American elected official in the State of Mississippi and current Chair of the Homeland Security Committee, was just doing his job, trying to certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on January 6. It’s a story he recounts in wrenching detail to journalist Andrea Bernstein in the must-listen podcast about the insurrection called Will Be Wild.

“People came to town at the President’s [Trump] invitation,” he told her, still sounding incredulous.

Thompson reached out to Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, looking for something to hold the president accountable. “You’re not gonna believe this,” he was told. Johnson explained that a provision in the KKK Act, one that Rainey got through, said people could be held liable—meaning have to pay real money and get in real trouble—if they conspire to “molest, interrupt, hinder or impede, federal officials in the discharge of their duties.”   

“We looked at the certification process and said ‘bam!’ all we were trying to do was our job.” So, in Feb 2021, Thompson filed a civil lawsuit against Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and two right-wing extremist groups, the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, for conspiring to block the certification and inciting deadly violence. The suit was filed by the NAACP and the civil rights law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. A federal judge subsequently found a “plausible conspiracy,” and the suit marches on, but a baseline narrative of facts and culpability had entered the chat.

In June of 2021, Thompson was tapped by Nancy Pelosi to serve as chair of the Jan 6 Select Committee, and now everyone knows his name.

Rainey lives on in more ways than one. A dignified portrait of Joseph Rainey was reportedly torn off the Capitol wall on Jan. 6 but appears to have been found, unharmed, in a pile on the other side of the building. And it looks like an exhibit to memorialize his legacy and the work of like-minded colleagues, is on view.

But this is his moment, too. Rainey lived through the first major post-War backlash against Black civil rights, witnessed the birth of organized white violence, and understood the role that legislation must play to codify equity and help heal the nation of its racist roots.

Instead, the wound was on full display on January 6, 2020. It’s fitting, if not painful, that Rainey has had the chance to try again.

I’ll give him the last word.

“Gentlemen, I say to you this discrimination must cease. We are determined to fight this question; we believe the Constitution gives us this right. All of the fifteen amendments made to the Constitution run down in one single line of protecting the rights of the citizens of this country. One after another of those amendments give these rights to citizens; step by step these rights are secured to them. And now we say to you that if you will not obey the Constitution, then the power is given by that Constitution for the enactment of such a law as will have a tendency to enforce the provisions thereof.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

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On Background: Famous figures tackle racism

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Parting words

"For the most part, historians view Andrew Johnson as the worst possible person to have served as President at the end of the American Civil War. Because of his gross incompetence in federal office and his incredible miscalculation of the extent of public support for his policies, Johnson is judged as a great failure in making a satisfying and just peace. He is viewed to have been a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or to accept a political reality at odds with his own ideas… In the end, Johnson did more to extend the period of national strife than he did to heal the wounds of war."

—Elizabeth R. Varon, Professor of History, University of Virginia

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