Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

pediency," should disappear forever; our house should be no longer divided against itself; a new corner-stone should be built into the edifice of our national, continental liberty, and those who "guard and support the structure," should accept, in all its comprehensiveness, the sentiment that all men are created equal, and that governments are established among men to defend and protect their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


97 THE CIVIL RIGHTS BILL

James T. Rapier

One of the most effective speeches in Congress in support of the civil rights bill was delivered on February 4, 1875, by James T. Rapier, representative from Alabama. No one better described how a black man felt as an alien in his own native land or more brilliantly posed the question of why African Americans who had given so much to save the nation were still denied their basic rights. Like Langston, Rapier explores the bitter fact that a black person could be admitted to the U.S. Senate yet denied access to schools, restaurants, inns, and railroad cars. Rapier begins with a reflexive analysis of his complex, humiliating, and treacherous rhetorical situation, in which he must come "hat in hand" before his white "colleagues" to plead for equal treatment, yet avoid any suggestion of "social equality." Rapier's speech eloquently tells what it means to be a man who is "half free and half slave."

Rapier was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1839, of a white father and black mother. He studied at Montreal College in Canada and the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Returning to Alabama after the Civil War, Rapier was successively a delegate to the Reconstruction constitutional convention, a newspaper editor, a labor organizer, and the secretary of the Alabama Equal Rights League. In 1872 he was elected to Congress from the Second Congressional District of Alabama. He served one term, during which he fought repeatedly for civil rights. Rapier died in 1883.

Rapier's text is taken from the Congressional Record, 43d Congress, 1st session, volume 2, part 1, 565-67. For more information on Rapier, see William L. Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991 ( New York: Amistad, 1992); and Eric Foner, Freedom'sLawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction

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