The Long, Sordid History of Expelling Black LawmakersRoundup
tags: racism, Reconstruction, African American history, political history
David A. Love is a faculty member in journalism and media studies at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, and a writer based in Philadelphia. He writes on race, politics and justice issues.
On April 6, the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two Black freshman lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, for exercising their First Amendment rights, protesting gun violence with a bullhorn and demanding state legislative action on gun control. Their expulsion occurred after a shooter killed six people, including three children, at a Nashville Christian school resulting in a nationwide student walkout and massive student protests at the state Capitol.
The racial optics of removing two young Black men from office were glaring, in a legislature whose White Republican supermajority has thrived on voter suppression, disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, and which employed arbitrary rules to silence these lawmakers on the statehouse floor. Gloria Johnson, a third lawmaker who faced removal but is White, was spared expulsion — in her opinion because of her skin color.
As shocking as these expulsions were to many, America has a long history of removing Black lawmakers from office, quelling dissent and subverting the will of the voters — all for the sake of raw power, resisting demographic change and maintaining White dominance through antidemocratic and dictatorial means.
During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, 2,000 Black public officials served throughout the country, with 600 elected officials in state legislatures and 16 in Congress. The 1868 South Carolina legislature was the first in the nation with a Black majority. In Mississippi, a state where the formerly enslaved outnumbered White people, the 1868 state constitution was one of the first to establish free public education for children without regard to race.
Ultimately, across the South, Black political power was erased by White pro-Confederate mob violence — with 35 Black officials murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and others — and White constitutional conventions designed to eviscerate Black rights, eliminate Black political leadership and uphold the segregationist power structure.
In Georgia, 33 Black lawmakers were expelled from the General Assembly for being Black. White Democrats in control of the Assembly declared that the 1868 election won by Republican Gov. Rufus Bullock was fraudulent and illegitimate, and that the new state constitution did not grant the Black legislators the right to hold office. They further argued that formerly enslaved Black people had no right to vote. Known as the “Original 33,” 24 of the expelled lawmakers were ministers.