Politics & Policy

Black History Lessons from the GOP

Oscar De Priest (Library of Congress)
The Republican party has a proud history of brave, independent-minded public servants.

We are closing in on the end of Black History Month, and National Review has not exactly been inundated by copy relating to the occasion.

That is in part as it should be: Conservatives are not big on viewing human beings as racial aggregates. We are capitalists who see people as buyers and sellers, investors and entrepreneurs in a marketplace that cares more about returns than race; we are constitutionalists who believe that we are equal individuals under the law; we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Conservatives may not have a lot of use for Black History Month, but it does provide us with an occasion for something fruitful: remembering when the Republican party was home to a fair number of legitimate bad-asses — gun-toting, slavery-fighting, fearless men and women who led lives of astounding personal courage and political consequence.

Today’s politicians spend a great deal of time congratulating each other — and themselves — on their courage, as though in the 21st-century U.S. elected officials were being picked off by assassins for holding mildly controversial opinions. The best and worst of them write books with horribly self-aggrandizing titles: Unintimidated, Duty, No Apology, Living History, Taking Heat, Courage and Consequence. The Republican party of 2014 may be overwhelmingly white, but what it really is is overwhelmingly lacking in hombres. (Of course the Democratic party is utterly bereft in that capacity, too, but that’s to be expected; they aren’t the party of Lincoln — they’re the party of your fourth-grade art teacher.) Here are a few inspirational Republicans to remember during Black History Month.

“She drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a Republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.” That was one schoolgirl’s description of Mary Fields, a.k.a. Stagecoach Mary, who is an obvious candidate for induction into the inaugural class in the American Bad-Ass Hall of Fame. Miss Fields was a freed slave who worked for some years as the foreman of a Catholic mission in what was then the Montana territory, hauling freight through blizzards and fighting wolves to defend the nuns’ cargo.

She lost that job after a professional dispute with a hired man ended in a gunfight. Gary Cooper, who was slightly acquainted with her, tells it like this: “Mary had a fondness for hard liquor that was matched only by her capacity to put it away, and it’s historical fact that one of Cascade’s early mayors, D. W. Monroe, gave special permission to let Mary drink in the saloons with men, a privilege, if you want to call it that. Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, some say in 1832, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw breath or a .38.” Because she was unsure of her exact birthday, Mr. Cooper recalled, “they would close Cascade schools in her honor whenever she felt like having one.”

Mary Fields was the second woman (and the first black one) to work for the postal service, and that at a time when mail couriers, especially in the west, were not pampered, unionized bureaucrats in ridiculous Roderick Spode outfits, but stagecoach drivers who faced dangers ranging from bandits to Indians. When the snow got too high for her horses, she — a strapping woman of 6 feet, 2 inches, and 200-odd pounds — put on snowshoes and carried the mail on her shoulders.

Does this look like a woman who is big on compromising her Second Amendment rights?

You think John Boehner has a hard time being speaker of the House? John R. Lynch, born a slave, was elected speaker of the house — in 1873 — in Mississippi. He later served in the U.S. House, worked as a photographer, as a lawyer, and a real-estate developer, served in the army and rose to the rank of major, and chaired the Republican National Convention. He challenged — and beat — an ex-Confederate general in a congressional race. John Boehner has trouble from the Tea Party; John R. Lynch had trouble from terrorists — namely the Redshirts, the Democratic-party militia that terrorized southern Republicans, black and white, as a critical part of that party’s never-ending bid for total political domination. They staged massacres in free black communities in the South and used every means at their disposal, from the parliamentary to the criminal, to prevent Lynch from taking the seat to which he was rightfully elected.

Despite the emotional tenor of the times, Mr. Lynch was surprisingly undemonstrative in his rhetoric, even wry. In the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1875, he observed: “If any of our Democratic friends will vote for [the bill], we will be agreeably surprised.” He was not surprised — no Democrat voted for the bill.

But Mr. Lynch was not one to let his Republican colleagues off easy, either, saying in the same speech: “If Republicans should vote against it, we will be sorely disappointed; it will be to us a source of deep mortification as well as profound regret. We will feel as though we are deserted in the house of our friends. But I have no fears whatever in this respect. You have stood by the colored people of this country when it was more unpopular to do so than it is to pass this bill. You have fulfilled every promise thus far, and I have no reason to believe that you will not fulfill this one.” The bill was eventually signed into law by President Grant before being declared unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, the Redshirts and the Klan eventually were successful in delivering his House seat to the Democrats, but he took the loss in stride and did what Republicans do — went into business and made himself some money. He lived to be 92 and was buried with full honors at Arlington.

There are others who led lives that were for the most part less dramatic but punctuated with moments of courage and clarity. Representative Oscar De Priest, the first black man elected to Congress after Democrats succeeded in re-disenfranchising southern blacks, led a dramatic floor fight in the late 1920s over segregation of the House and Senate restaurants and other facilities. And that was fine so far as making speeches goes, but when he himself was challenged upon entering the Senate canteen, he sized up the situation and informed the Alabama Democrat who was hassling him that he didn’t think he was big enough to stop him, and blew past him. He didn’t ask for permission, and didn’t wait to be told that it was acceptable.

He was also an implacable foe of welfare spending and tax increases (so much for the GOP being a different party today).

There were others: Hiram Rhodes Revels finished out the Senate term of Jefferson Davis. Blanche Bruce represented Mississippi in the Senate and, in fitting Republican style, became the register of the Treasury, which meant he was in charge of overseeing the public debt (and the first black man whose signature appeared on U.S. paper money).

A lesson for the Republican party: Having more members like Stagecoach Mary and Oscar De Priest might make the GOP more popular with black voters. It also might make the GOP more popular, period.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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