Friday, October 19, 2018

Good Old "Grassroots" Power Politics

I was listening to a radio advertisement sponsored by the interest group that is advocating for citizens to give up their right to elect their superintendent this morning and I was intrigued by the strong words in the ad:  "52nd isn't going to cut it," "We will take the politics out of education," and so on.

They're running that ad, they're putting that kind of language in their internet material, and they're flooding our mailboxes with flyers with that kind of commentary in it.  But the striking thing about the group's messaging is the fact that even as they're absolutely savaging the current superintendent's and school board's record, they're very careful to say that they LOVE our superintendent and the school board members and think that they have just done such a great job.  They just LOVE the job they have done, but then they distort their record so they can put it in a negative light in order to make political points.  So much for "We will take the politics out of education."

Escambia County citizens who have been following the debate on this issue are aware that the group that is behind this marketing material KNOWS that the data they're citing has a flip side that tells a different - or at least a more balanced - story.  This group also KNOWS that there is absolutely no proof that changing the way we select our superintendent has a bearing on student or school district performance, but they jam that data at the citizens and call it "proof" anyway, as if it does.

I've said it before; let me say it again. Whether the superintendent is appointed or elected is NOT a predictor of student or school district performance.  Studies that have been conducted by more esteemed and resourced people and institutions than I have made that point.  There are many other factors that ARE predictors, but the way we select our superintendent isn't one of them.

Consider this data to see how far they're going in order to give citizens the wrong impression about this issue:

  • While they point out the school district's ranking, they ignore the fact that 12 of the top 20 Florida school districts (60%) - all "A" school districts - have school superintendents who were elected by the citizens (FDOE data).  Again, this data doesn't tell us whether electing or appointing a superintendent is the best way to go, but it does show how skewed the data is behind the effort to convince citizens to give up their right to vote.
  • Here's another Florida Department of Education data point that proponents of the appointed superintendent format don't acknowledge: 40% of Florida's "A" school districts have appointed superintendents.  However, that percentage was much higher just 8 years ago.  In 2010, 55% of Florida's "A" schools had appointed superintendents, but by 2015, that percentage fell to 48%, then it fell again to 40% in 2018.  Therefore, over that same period, the percentage of "A" Florida school districts in which the citizens elect their superintendent rose from 45% in 2010 to 52% in 2015, then again to 60% in 2018.
  • Then, when we look at average Florida school district grades on a 5-point grade scale ("A" = 5; "F" = 1), we see that the average school district grade in 2018 for school districts that have ELECTED superintendents is 4.0.  The average school district grade for school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents is 4.1.  One-tenth of a point separates the two approaches to selecting a superintendent!
  • We know where the Escambia County School District ranks in terms of state standardized test score performance, but what we aren't being told in these ads is that most Florida school districts have improved in their state standardized test performance since the 2015-16 school year by an average of 8.6%.  Escambia County has improved its score over that period by 10%.  That is a larger improvement than 20 of the 26 Florida school districts that have appointed superintendents have made.  Only 4 Florida school districts that have appointed superintendents made a more substantial improvement during that period.
  • What about the Escambia County graduation rate?  Since the 2012-13 school year, the graduation rate in the Escambia County School District has risen from 64.2% to 79.5%.  There is every indication that the most recent graduation rate for Escambia County is over 80%; watch for it.  That's extraordinary.
  • The group also knows that while they say that moving to an appointed superintendent format allows us to cast a wider net for candidates, 17 of the 26 appointed Florida superintendents - almost two-thirds of them - were hired from within their school district staffs, not from somewhere else.  Why?  Florida school districts are among the largest and most complex in the country, and they like to have a superintendent who knows Florida and local education-related issues and nuances.  This isn't Wisconsin where the average ratio of school districts to counties is 6:1; the ratio in Florida is 1:1.
  • And here is one more data point that throws off every myth about how the people feel about the state of education leadership in Escambia County.  The Pensacola Young Professionals' 2018 Quality of Life Community Report includes the results of a survey of 800 registered Pensacola voters.  The survey results show that the Escambia County governmental figure or entity that has the highest favorable rating (Excellent to Good rating) is the Escambia County School District Superintendent (55%). The second highest favorable rating was awarded to the Escambia County School Board (49%).  Again, the polling included only Pensacola residents so we suspect the favorable numbers would be even higher outside of the city limits.  What body is near the bottom of the list?  The Escambia County Commission.  It has a 39% Excellent to Good rating. (They might be able to boost their rating by funding sidewalks and lighting in the neighborhoods where our students live!)

People must be wondering why the activists who are supporting the change in the way we select our superintendent say that they LOVE the way the superintendent and the school board have done their jobs, but then they rattle off a litany of one-sided data points in order to tell citizens that they and the district aren't getting the job done.  The answer is simple.  They want a specific outcome and they want us to believe that the data that they cite is proof of the need for change, but they don't want to alienate the superintendent, the school board, or the citizens of Escambia County who know the kind of job they have done.  They have said repeatedly and in a number of different ways that citizens should not elect the superintendent because we're not engaged enough to make that choice.  Maybe they really believe that, and maybe they also believe that we're not engaged enough to know the other side of the story.

For a group that says it's a grassroots organization that wants to take the politics out of our schools, their strategy is a very political one, pushed out in a very expensive advertising campaign, and funded and backed by a very powerful bundle of interest groups. (But they just LOVE the job the current school district superintendent and school board have done!)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Who Was Richard B. Russell, Namesake of the Russell Senate Office Building?

With the recent passing of Senator John McCain, there has been much discussion of renaming the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain. As the public becomes more familiar with the current namesake of the building, the question some might raise is why it has taken so long to re-name it for someone else.

Senator Richard B. Russell was a democrat United States Senator from the state of Georgia and President Pro Tempore of the Senate when he died in office at the age of 73. He served in the Senate for more than half his life (38 years) and before that, he served as Governor of Georgia and as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. He spent 50 of his 73 years in politics.

What makes the naming of the Russell Building after Senator Russell in 1972 noteworthy is his place in the history of United States civil rights and the timing of the naming of the building relative to what was generally viewed as the end of an ugly chapter in American history seven years earlier in 1965.

The 100 years leading to 1965 was plagued by rampant institutional racism and segregation, but Senator Russell stood squarely opposed to any change of course throughout his political career.

In 1956, Senator Russell co-authored the "Declaration of Constitutional Principles" (also known as the "Southern Manifesto") in opposition to racial integration in public places. The manifesto, signed by 101 mostly-southern congressmen (99 democrats and 2 republicans), was written in response to the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision which took much of the starch out of the Court's 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision which legitimized the separate but equal segregationist doctrine.

A year later, Russell opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which was advocated by President Eisenhower and created the six-member Commission on Civil Rights and established the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. It also authorized the U.S. Attorney General to seek court injunctions against the deprivation and obstruction of voting rights by state officials.

Three years later, the Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which expanded the enforcement powers of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and introduced criminal penalties for obstructing the implementation of federal court orders. It also required voting and registration records for federal elections to be preserved. Senator Russell voted against this act as well.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, and schools, created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor employment discrimination in public and private sectors, and provided additional capacities to enforce voting rights. Of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senator Russell said, "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states." The "we" to which Senator Russell was referring was a bloc of 18 Southern senators (17 democrats and 1 republican) who filibustered the bill in the Senate for 60 days in an attempt to block the legislation through Senate rules.

Nonetheless, the bill which had been envisioned by President Kennedy and was carried on in his honor by President Johnson, prevailed in the Senate and was subsequently signed into law by Johnson. In response, Russell led a southern boycott of the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the last of the series of civil rights laws that had been approved over a span of eight years between 1957 and 1965. These laws were essentially designed to finally close loopholes and enforce the 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments which provided citizenship and voting rights for native-born and naturalized African-Americans a century before.

Senator Russell voted against all four of those key acts of Congress.

Russell was selected to serve as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and President pro temporare of the Senate in 1969, he died in 1971, and the Senate Office Building was named for him in 1972.

So, at a time when there is an indiscriminate rush to topple confederate statues and monuments whether they were associated with the South's Jim Crow past or not, here we have a federal government building that is named for a dedicated segregationist who did everything he could throughout his lengthy career in public office to defeat the civil rights laws that were intended to reverse 100 years of institutional racism, even after slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment.

Some have explained Russell's actions as simply a matter of him being a product of his environment and times. History is replete with examples where that is true of others, but in this case, there was a century of legal authority that Russell and others before him dedicated their lives to defying. If Russell were merely a man - a regular citizen - in that time and place, that would be one thing, albeit still racist. However, Russell spent his adult life as the leader of a movement and as a leader and mentor in the United States Senate; in that context, he had a duty to rise above his time and place and lead righteously.

The decision to name the Russell Senate Office Building after Senator McCain is a no-brainer.  It should have never been named for Russell in the first place.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

So Much Accomplished; So Much Left To Do

Events continue to show that there remains a good deal of work to be done with respect to civil rights in the United States. It's instructive to examine our progress and setbacks on that front over the past 150 years as we continue our effort to form our "more perfect Union" and separate ourselves from what Dr. Condoleeza Rice once referred to as America's "original sin of slavery." Looking at these events through the prism of history makes it possible for us to build on our successes and avoid repeating our mistakes, and it reminds us that real progress requires persistence and cooperation.

Beginning with the anti-slavery momentum that swelled before the Civil War, our history has been marked by advances and failures in Congress, in local law-making, and even in Supreme Court decisions. On the whole, however, we’ve seen tremendous progress, even as incidents arise at times that sometimes make us wonder whether we've made any progress as a nation at all.

We've certainly come a long way since the days of the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866 when local laws were written to impose draconian restrictions on recently liberated slaves, and essentially reimposed slavery but under different parameters. Also gone today are the Jim Crow laws that created a separate but equal landscape in the South and a Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson that asserted that those laws didn't violate the Constitution. Although Plessy v Ferguson has never been explicitly overturned by the Court, the High Court's Brown v Education decision 60 years later held that the separate but equal doctrine was not Constitutional when applied to schools. That took a lot of the starch out of the separate but equal doctrine that had been a begrudging step toward equality yet was racist at its core.

A study of the acts of Congress over the 100 tumultuous years between the passage of the 13th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, their purposes, and the evolving lines of partisanship in Congressional voting shows the how the heart of the nation matured in a very meaningful way during that time. The change in the Democratic Party in particular is noteworthy. After providing minimal support for the 13th Amendment in 1864, Democrat congressmen and senators failed to contribute a single vote for civil rights legislation for nearly another 100 years until 1957, a stretch that included seven bills that became law in spite of not having their support or votes. That included the votes on the 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments that provided citizenship for American-born African-Americans and granted them the right to vote.

In spite of the reluctance by some in the federal legislature and the foot-dragging in the courts and state legislatures, the true sense of the people was apparent in their support for the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments. The fact that passage of those amendments, which are now the law of the land, required the support of the citizens or their representatives in 3/4 of the states bore that out.

After years of blatant racism and discrimination in parts of the country after Reconstruction, sometimes implicitly and at other times explicitly supported in laws and by some state courts, the United States entered what has been referred to as "The Second Reconstruction Era" that ended with a flurry of important civil rights laws passed by Congress between 1957 and 1965.

The tide began to change in the federal legislature during the Eisenhower Administration when, for the first time, the nation witnessed bipartisan support for civil rights legislation, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Bipartisan support for civil rights reform held up again in the 1960s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which expanded the enforcement powers of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  Then, throughout the 1960s, the work of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King bore more fruit and saw the bipartisan adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, laws that effectively shut down the loopholes and exploitation that had occurred since the Civil War.

As we remember and honor the hardships, sacrifice, and courage that have produced such extraordinary progress against abuses of civil rights in our country, it's useful to remind ourselves that we still have much work to do to resolve what Dr. Rice called "the contradiction at the heart of our democracy." As we press forward, we should take comfort in knowing that for more than a century, the American people have rallied behind those reforms and they continue to do so today.



Civil Rights Legislation
Congressional Voting Record

13th Amendment
Abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

House of Representatives - June 15, 1864
95 yea, 66 nay, 21 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - failed)
Republicans 77 yea, 1 nay, 5 not voting
Democrats 4 yea, 59 nay, 9 not voting
Others 14 yea, 6 nay, 7 not voting

Senate April 8, 1864
38 yea, 6 nay, 5 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 34 yea, 0 nay, 0 not voting
Democrats 3 yea, 6 nay, 3 not voting
Others 1 yea, 0 nay, 2 not voting

House of Representatives January 31, 1865
119 yea, 56 nay, 8 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 84 yea, 0 nay, 0 not voting
Democrats 14 yea, 50 nay, 8 not voting
Others 21 yea, 6 nay, 0 not voting

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Civil Rights Act of 1866
Guaranteed the rights of all citizens to make and enforce contracts and to purchase, sell, or lease property. Passed by the 39th Congress (1865-1867) as S.R. 61. (The bill also guaranteed equal benefits and access to the law which was aimed at the Black Codes passed by many post-war states.)

House of Representatives March 13, 1866
111 yea, 38 nay, 34 not voting
Republicans 106 yea, 1 nay, 25 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 32 nay, 8 not voting
Other 5 yea, 5 nay, 1 not voting

Senate February 2, 1866 (Vote to amend SR61 to deny blacks the right to vote)
7 yea, 39 nay, 4 not voting
Republicans 1 yea, 35 nay, 1 not voting
Democrats 6 yea, 4 nay, 2 not voting
Other 0 yea, 0 nay, 1 not voting

Senate February 2, 1866
33 yea, 12 nay, 5 not voting
Republicans 33 yea, 2 nay, 2 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 10 nay, 2 not voting
Other 0 yea, 0 nay, 1 not voting

This bill was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, but his veto was overridden in the House and Senate and became law.

Vote to override President Johnson's veto of SR61

House of Representatives April 9, 1866
122 yea, 41 nay, 21 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 117 yea, 2 nay, 15 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 33 nay, 6 not voting
Other 5 yea, 6 nay

Senate April 6, 1866
33 yea, 15 nay, 1 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 32 yea, 4 nay, 1 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 11 nay, 0 not voting
Other 1 yea, 0 nay, 0 not voting

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14th Amendment
Declared that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and that no state may deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law or deny any person equal protection of the laws.

House of Representatives June 13, 1866
137 yea, 37 nay, 9 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 127 yea, 0 nay, 6 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 37 nay, 2 not voting
Other 10 yea, 0 nay, 1 not voting

Senate June 8, 1866
33 yea, 11 nay, 5 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 32 yea, 3 nay, 2 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 8 nay, 3 not voting
Other 1 yea, 0 nay, 0 not voting

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15th Amendment
Forbade any state to deprive a citizen of his vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

House of Representatives February 25, 1869
141 yea, 44 nay, 35 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 141 yea, 3 nay, 27 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 39 nay, 7 not voting
Other 2 yea, 2 nay, 1 not voting

Senate February 26, 1869
39 yea, 13 nay, 14 not voting (required 2/3 for passage - passed)
Republicans 39 yea, 4 nay, 13 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 9 nay, 1 not voting

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Civil Rights Act of 1870 (also known as Enforcement Act of 1870 or First Ku Klux Klan Act)
Prohibited discrimination in voter registration on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Established penalties for interfering with a person’s right to vote. Gave federal courts the power to enforce the act and to employ the use of federal marshals and the army to uphold it.

House of Representatives May 16, 1870
133 yea, 58 nay, 39 not voting
Republicans 132 yea, 1 nay, 30 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 54 nay, 8 not voting
Other 1 yea, 3 nay, 1 not voting

Senate May 16, 1870
48 yea, 11 nay, 13 not voting
Republicans 45 yea, 1 nay, 10 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 10 nay, 1 not voting
Other 3 yea, 0 nay, 2 not voting

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Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as Second Ku Klux Klan Act)
Placed all elections in both the North and South under federal control. Allowed for the appointment of election supervisors by federal circuit judges. Authorized U.S. Marshals to employ deputies to maintain order at polling places.

House of Representatives February 15, 1871
144 yea, 64 nay, 32 not voting
Republicans 143 yea, 3 nay, 22 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 58 nay, 9 not voting
Other 1 yea, 3 nay, 1 not voting

Senate February 25, 1871
39 yea, 10 nay, 24 not voting
Republicans 38 yea, 1 nay, 16 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 7 nay, 3 not voting
Other 1 yea, 2 nay, 5 not voting

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Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as Third Ku Klux Klan Act)
Enforced the 14th Amendment by guaranteeing all citizens of the United States the rights afforded by the Constitution and provided legal protection under the law.

House of Representatives April 19, 1871
93 yea, 74 nay, 63 not voting
Republicans 92 yea, 0 nay, 36 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 73 nay, 25 not voting
Other 1 yea, 1 nay, 2 not voting

Senate April 19, 1871
36 yea, 13 nay, 20 not voting
Republicans 35 yea, 2 nay, 13 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 11 nay, 3 not voting
Other 1 yea, 0 nay, 4 not voting

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Civil Rights Act of 1875
Barred discrimination in public accommodations and on public conveyances on land and water. Prohibited exclusion of African Americans from jury duty.

House of Representatives February 4, 1875
162 yea, 100 nay, 27 not voting
Republicans 161 yea, 12 nay, 21 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 84 nay, 6 not voting
Others 1 yea, 4 nay, 0 not voting

Senate February 27, 1875
38 yea, 26 nay, 9 not voting
Republicans 38 yea, 4 nay, 7 not voting
Democrats 0 yea, 18 nay, 1 not voting
Others 0 yea, 4 nay, 1 not voting

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Civil Rights Act of 1957
Created the six-member Commission on Civil Rights and established the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. Authorized the U.S. Attorney General to seek court injunctions against deprivation and obstruction of voting rights by state officials.

House of Representatives February 4, 1875
286 yea, 126 nay, 9 present, 13 not voting
Republicans 167 yea, 19 nay, 5 present, 8 not voting
Democrats 119 yea, 107 nay, 4 present, 5 not voting

Senate August 7, 1957
72 yea, 18 nay, 1 present, 4 not voting
Republicans 43 yea, 0 nay, 1 present, 2 not voting
Democrats 29 yea, 18 nay, 0 present, 2 not voting

Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond filibustered the bill for more than 24 hours in an attempt to kill the bill. The filibuster failed.

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Civil Rights Act of 1960
Expanded the enforcement powers of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and introduced criminal penalties for obstructing the implementation of federal court orders. Extended the Civil Rights Commission for two years. Required that voting and registration records for federal elections be preserved.

House of Representatives April 21, 1960
288 yea, 95 nay, 25 present, 22 not voting
Republicans 123 yea, 12 nay, 12 present, 4 not voting
Democrats 165 yea, 82 nay, 13 present, 18 not voting
Others 0 yea, 1 nay, 0 present, 0 not voting

Senate April 8, 1960
71 yea, 18 nay, 11 not voting
Republicans 29 yea, 0 nay, 6 not voting
Democrats 42 yea, 18 nay, 5 not voting

In a special February 1959 message to Congress on the subject of civil rights, President Eisenhower supported civil rights legislation and proposed seven actions to protect the civil rights of Americans:

  • strengthen the law to confront the use or threats of force regarding school desegregation cases
  • give the FBI more investigative authority in the case of crimes involving the destruction or attempted destruction of schools or churches
  • give the Attorney General power to inspect Federal election records and to preserve those records as necessary for inspection
  • provide a temporary program of financial and technical aid to adjust to school desegregation decisions
  • temporarily authorize a provision for the education of children of members of the Armed Forces when State-administered public schools have been closed because of desegregation decisions or orders
  • consider establishing a statutory Commission on Equal Job Opportunity under Government Contracts
  • extend the life of the Civil Rights Commission for an additional two years
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Civil Rights Act of 1964
Prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, facilities, and schools. Outlawed discrimination in federally funded projects. Created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor employment discrimination in public and private sectors. Provided additional capacities to enforce voting rights. Extended the Civil Rights Commission for four years.

House of Representatives February 10, 1964
290 yea, 130 nay, 5 present, 6 not voting
Republicans 138 yea, 34 nay, 1 present, 4 not voting
Democrats 152 yea, 96 nay, 4 present, 2 not voting

Senate June 19, 1964
73 yea, 21 nay
Republicans 26 yea, 6 nay
Democrats 46 yea, 21 nay

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supported by President Kennedy, then by President Johnson. When the bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) led a "Southern Bloc," consisting of 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican Senator and launched a filibuster to prevent the bill's passage. Russell said, "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states." The filibuster lasted for 60 days. (Incidently, the Russell Senate Office Building which has been proposed for renaming for John McCain was named for the leader of the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Senator Richard Russell.)

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Voting Rights Act of 1965
Suspended the use of literacy tests and voter disqualification devices for five years. Authorized the use of federal examiners to supervise voter registration in states that used tests or in which less than half the voting-eligible residents registered or voted. Directed the U.S. Attorney General to institute proceedings against use of poll taxes. Provided criminal penalties for individuals who violated the act.

House of Representatives August 3, 1965
328 yea, 74 nay, 31 not voting
Republicans 110 yea, 20 nay, 10 not voting
Democrats 218 yea, 54 nay, 21 not voting

Senate August 4, 1965
79 yea, 18 nay, 3 not voting
Republicans 30 yea, 1 nay, 1 not voting
Democrats 49 yea, 16 nay, 2 not voting

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Elusive Legacy of James Henry Harris

James Henry Harris was born near Creedmoor in Granville County, North Carolina in 1832. He apprenticed as a carpenter as a young man before starting his own business in Raleigh. When laws in North Carolina regarding free people of color became more aggressive in the 1840s, he moved to Ohio1  where he attended school for two years. Within a decade, he traveled to and taught in Liberia and Sierra Leone where over the previous twenty years, thousands of freed slaves from the United States had resettled.

Harris then moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where, in 1863, he was asked by Indiana Governor Levi Morton to help raise a regiment of U. S. Colored Troops for service in the Civil War.  After the war, he returned to North Carolina where he became a teacher for the New England Freedmen's Aid Society.2

Harris soon saw a need to ensure that freedom for blacks included legal and political equality, so he entered politics. In 1865, he was elected to the North Carolina Freedmen's Convention where he advocated moderation and reconciliation with whites and education for blacks. That same year, he became vice president of the National Equal Rights Convention. By the time he became president of the Freedman's Convention the following year, he had become increasingly more forceful in his insistence on equal rights for blacks.3 

As post-war Reconstruction progressed, Harris developed as one of the most influential black politicians in North Carolina. He was a charter member of the North Carolina Republican Party, was a delegate at the 1868 North Carolina Constitutional Convention, and was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly three times and to the North Carolina Senate once. He also used his influence and oratorical skills to urge President Ulysses S. Grant to press Congress to pass legislation that would ensure equal rights for blacks. He attended the 1868, 1872, and 1876 Republican National Conventions and was a presidential elector in 1872.4

In 1870, while he was a member of the North Carolina legislature, Harris joined with 11 other legislators led by Senator John Pool and met with Governor William W. Holden to devise a plan to suppress the Ku Klux Klan which had been on a terror campaign to keep recently freed slaves from exercising their right to vote by intimidating them and white Republican officials. They decided to form a militia to stop the Klan; that move resulted in the Holden-Kirk War. After several bloody clashes with the Klan, Governor Holden disbanded the militia. Later that year, however, the Democrats gained the majority in the North Carolina legislature and impeached Governor Holden on a straight party-line vote. (140 years later, in 2011, the North Carolina Senate voted unanimously to pardon Governor Holden.)5

In the 1880s Harris edited and published the North Carolina Republican, whose slogan was “Firm in the Right,”6 and whose work was focused "in behalf of the Republican party and the advancement of the negro."7

During his career, Harris was an advocate for education for blacks, prison reform, aid to laborers, protection for women and debtors, and care for orphans. He also helped create and became one of the first trustees of the Colored Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Raleigh. Since even before he began his political career, Harris believed that white and black interests were interwoven, but along the way he maintained his insistence that blacks fight to keep their political rights and to gain equality before the law.”8

The end of Reconstruction brought about a persistent erosion of the progress that had been made toward equality among the races after the Civil War. Within two decades, political control had shifted and Jim Crow laws gave legal sanction to segregation and discrimination in the South. Finally, 1901 saw the return of Democratic control in the North Carolina legislature and an end to representation by black North Carolinians in the United States Congress, which had seen 22 black men among its membership over the previous 30 years. It would be another 28 years before another African-American was elected to the U. S. Congress from the state of North Carolina.9

James H. Harris' work is largely unknown today and his legacy is elusive, but the contributions that he and many others made to the advancement of African-American interests before the Civil War and during Reconstruction were noteworthy and courageous. Although, many of their initiatives could not withstand the Jim Crow era, their legacy is that although it is easier to throw up one’s hands on racial tension, bias, and bigotry today as if it has never been worse and there is no hope of improvement, the fact is that energetic and courageous Americans can make a real difference with real action, if they're willing. "Real action" includes not turning a deaf and indifferent ear to discrimination in our communities and ensuring that our elected officials back up their campaign rhetoric with tangible action. In order to do that, we have to pay attention and rely on facts and substance rather than fall for the partisanship that favors politicians, not the people and principles they're supposed to represent.


1 Ijames, Earl “Constitutional Convention, 1868: ‘Black Caucus’.” NCPedia. Reprinted from the Tar Heel Junior Historian Fall 2008. https://www.ncpedia.org/history/cw-1900/black-caucus
2 Alexander, Roberta Sue “Harris, James Henry.” NCPedia. 1988. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/harris-james-henry
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Barnett, Ned “N.C. state senate pardons governor who stood up to Klan.” Reuters. April 12, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northcarolina-pardon/n-c-state-senate-pardons-governor-who-stood-up-to-klan-idUSTRE73B80V20110412?feedType=RSS&feedName=domesticNews
6 Ijames, “Constitutional Convention, 1868: ‘Black Caucus’.”
7 Alexander, Roberta Sue “Harris, James Henry.”
8 Ibid.
9 “Representative George White of North Carolina.” History, Art, and Archives, United States House of Representatives.
http://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/35244?ret=True