In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to feature some of the Christian men and women who had a major influence on American history.
In the early day of Reconstruction after the Civi War, the Radical Republicans tried to ensure civil rights were extended to the estimated 2.3 million freed slaves. Christian missionaries, teachers, and business owners all came to help rebuild and bring equality to the newly freed blacks.
When the Radical Republicans ruled, blacks were given unprecedented power and influence. One of those great men was a Christian pastor Hiram Revels, the first black member of the US Senate. Revels believed that his appointment to fill the empty MS seat would “be a weakening blow against color line prejudice.” The Democratic minority hoped that a black Senator would “seriously damage the Republican Party.” Following is a short biography of Revels.
Revels, Hiram Rhoades (1822–1901). African-American Methodist minister, politician and educator. Born of free parentage in North Carolina, Revels went to Quaker institutions in Indiana and Ohio and to Knox College in Illinois. In 1845 he entered the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), serving churches in the Midwest and border states. A local church dispute in St. Louis resulted in his shift to an African-American Presbyterian congregation in Baltimore in 1858. During the Civil War, he recruited for African-American regiments, served as a chaplain, helped set up Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Mississippi and rejoined the AME Church. In 1868 he changed his clerical status to the Methodist Episcopal Church (ME), which had returned South for missions among the freedpeople. During Reconstruction, Revels advanced from local political roles in Mississippi to the state Senate until he became the first of his race to serve in the U.S. Senate (January 1870 to March 1871). Elected president of Alcorn University, he spent the remainder of his career in education, as a contributor to the church press and as a pastor and presiding elder. A representative to the General Conference of the ME Church in 1876, he fought unsuccessfully against the policy to permit a color line in the denomination.
Daniel G. Reid et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
Revels served and fought for the rights of blacks at a time of great civil unrest. The white and black people who came from the North to help ensure freedom for the black southerners were called “Carpetbaggers” by the white Democrats who wanted blacks to remain enslaved and oppressed. White Southerners who supported equality were labeled Scalawags by these same Democrats who sought to restore white supremacy. As noted in this PBS article,
After Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865, President Andrew Johnson alienated Congress with his Reconstruction policy. He supported white supremacy in the South and favored pro-Union Southern political leaders who had aided the Confederacy once war had been declared.
Southerners, with Johnson’s support, attempted to restore slavery in substance if not in name. In 1866, Congress and President Johnson battled for control of Reconstruction. The Congress won. Northern voters gave a smashing victory — more than two-thirds of the seats in Congress — to the Radical Republicans in the 1866 congressional election, enabling Congress to control Reconstruction and override any vetoes that Johnson might impose. Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 that divided the Confederate states (except for Tennessee, which had been re-admitted to the Union) into five military districts. Each state was required to accept the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which granted freedom and political rights of blacks.
Eventually, the white supremacists employed methods such as Redistricting to ensure Democrat power, terror groups like the Klu Klux Klan, Rifleman and Red Shirts used force to keep white Democrats in power and suppress both the black and white voices seeking equality. Eventually, Reconstruction ended, and the Jim Crow Era took shape.
Most whites rallied around the Democratic Party as the party of white supremacy. Between 1868 and 1871, terrorist organizations, especially the Ku Klux Klan, murdered blacks and whites who tried to exercise their right to vote or receive an education. The Klan, working with Democrats in several states, used fraud and violence to help whites regain control of their state governments. By the early 1870s, most Southern states had been “redeemed” — as many white Southerners called it — from Republican rule. By the time the last federal troops had been withdrawn in 1877, Reconstruction was all but over and the Democratic Party controlled the destiny of the South.
Despite the setbacks of the Democratic-led Jim Crow era, the legacy of the great Christian leaders like Hiram Revels who partnered with whites who shared his ideals should inspire all of us today who seek to insure the God-given rights of all peoples.