Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"God Didn't Curse Me When He Made Me Black"

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"God Didn't Curse Me When He Made Me Black"

Article excerpt

I think he was conscious of the fact... that he was a black chairman, that he was in a sea of sharks with the Southern chairmen that were, for want of another word, competition. But boy they all respected him. . .they sure showed him a lot of respect.1 -Dan Rostenkowski (1999)

There is but one God and there is but one race of men all made in the image of God. I did not make myself black any more than you made yourselves white, and God did not curse me when he made me black anymore than he cursed you when he made you white.2 -William Dawson (1951)

In 1951, the nation's highest-ranking black politician, Chicago congressman William L. Dawson (D-Illinois 1942-1970), spoke these words to a riveted House as he attacked the Winstead amendment, a measure designed to create segregated draft units in the military. The speech so moved House members that the New York Times, the Dallas News, the Champaign-Urbana Courier, and the Chicago Defender credited it with defeating the amendment.3 President Harry Truman called the speech "one of the great documents of the age," while an ordinary citizen from Massachusetts wrote a song based on the speech's theme.4 Even Dan Rostenkowski, who arrived in Congress several years later, knew that Dawson's oration and the subsequent defeat of the Winstead amendment represented a singularly important moment in congressional history.5

Dawson's fight against the Winstead amendment was but one of many congressional civil rights battles engaged by the Illinois congressman in his nearly three decades long congressional career beginning in 1942 until 1970. Although Dawson's congressional struggles reveal a great deal about the development of black politics in the post-war era and its role in black Americans' drive for civil rights, scholars have largely ignored Dawson's congressional efforts-focusing instead on Chicago and the South Side representative's relationship to Mayor Richard J. Daley. Using this approach most scholars have dismissed Dawson as a flunky of the Chicago Democratic organization.6 Their analysis has merit, but only in Chicago and primarily in the period from 1956 to 1970 - the last fourteen years of a political career stretching back to 1919 and the nadir of Dawson's ability to negotiate with Chicago's white Democratic leadership. Consequently, with a few exceptions, the analyses based on these years miss a great deal.7 Their limited focus on Chicago and their obsessive drive to demonstrate Dale/s cooptation of the black vote ignores that Dawson, like any other politician of national stature, operated in multiple political venues with interconnected yet distinct political agendas - a pattern complicated even more by Dawson's position as the nation's most senior black politician in a party with conflicting positions on black equality.

Historians' disregard for Dawson's congressional experiences points to a general lack of attention to black congressional leadership in this period.8 This absence of scholarship not only implies that black post-war congressional experiences meant little in the evolution of modern black politics, but it also, when compared to the impressive array of work regarding civil rights activists, implicitly legitimates a narrow conception of black leadership in the post-war period as grass-roots, charismatic, and removed from institutionalized systems of power. Biographies of New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, for example, focus more on Powell's charismatic leadership style, personal dramas, and struggles with Democratic Party leadership than on a substantive evaluation of his legislative agenda, particularly in the years prior to his assumption of the chair of the House Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare.9 This deficiency in the scholarship impairs our understanding of the development of modern black politics, for black representatives in the post-World War II era functioned as a link between the nation's black population, increasingly determined to acquire civil rights, and the federal government that could provide them. …

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