The African American historian, poet, and novelist Walter Dean Myers writes,
What we understand of our history is what we understand of ourselves. If it has come down to us that we are wonderful beings, blessed with all the gifts needed to succeed, then we will naturally seek that success. If we believe that we are fully deserving of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we will fight to retain those rights. (ix)
Distinguished African American Political and Governmental Leaders is a compilation of the lives of many of those men and women who believed that they and all African Americans were and are fully deserving of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are individuals who have fought and who continue to fight within the political arena to strengthen those rights for all.
While there were and are many men and women in politics deserving of recognition for their contributions to black America and to the United States as a whole, the 104 selected for inclusion here were or are leaders who have excelled in their chosen careers in public office and/or marked the path for others to follow. That is, all persons included in this book held either appointed or elected office and either distinguished themselves in office or were the first black persons to be appointed or elected to their positions. Joseph Hayne Rainey ( 1831-1887), for example, was the first black congressman from South Carolina and the first African American to preside over a session of the House of Representatives, demonstrating black leadership in his day. James Charles Evers ( 1922-) was elected the first black mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, in 1969, an event marking the powerful influence of the civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s. Like these two men, the men and women included in this volume did not shy from taking leading roles, but bravely conquered opposition and, at times, overcame violence to achieve their goals.
Arranged alphabetically, Distinguished African American Political and Governmental Leaders profiles those from both the past and present, from the early nineteenth century to 1998. Although a few African Americans held minor governmental posts before 1869 when Joseph Rainey was sworn into office-- William C. Nell ( 1816- 1874), for instance, was the first black person to hold a federal position (postal clerk in Boston in 1861)--blacks did not become an influential part of government until Reconstruction after the Civil War ( Smith153). African Americans entering the political arena then came from the South and often declared their candidacies at the risk of their own lives