Today in Civil Rights History: First African American Senator Gives Speech on U.S. Senate Floor

Media 03.16,09

On March 16, 1870, Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African American to give a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In his speech, Revels urged Congress to pressure the Georgia General Assembly to reinstate Black state legislators who had been illegally denied their seats.

In April 1868, Georgia voters ratified a new state constitution, which gave African Americans in Georgia full citizenship, including the right to vote. Voters also elected 29 African Americans to the state House of Representatives and three to the state Senate. However, when the Georgia legislature met in July, members of both houses tried to unseat the Black members by arguing that the state constitution did not permit Black representation.

When Black Georgians asked Congress to intervene, Revels insisted that Congress support the Black legislators: “I remarked that I rose to plead for protection for the defenseless race that now send their delegation to the seat of Government to sue for that which this Congress alone can secure to them. And here let me say further, that the people of the North owe to the colored race a deep obligation that is no easy matter to fulfill.”

The Mississippi state legislature appointed Revels to the Senate seat in 1870 after it was vacated by a former secessionist supporter. Revels was assigned to the Committee on the District of Columbia, where he argued against an effort to keep the schools of Washington, D.C., segregated. Revels also supported Black workers who had been excluded from working at the Washington Navy Yard based on their race.

After his term ended in 1871, Revels became the first president of Alcorn University in Mississippi and was a pastor at a church in Holly Springs, Miss.

Read Revels’ full speech (PDF)