Remembering black history: The first Barack Obama

Isaac Martin, Political Contributor

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Feb. 25 marks the 147th anniversary of a historic event in U.S. history: the swearing in of the first African-American U.S. senator, Rev. Hiram R. Revels. Over 100 years before the first black president, the inauguration of the first black senator was truly a momentous occasion, coming only seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Even Revels’ peers recognized the significance of this event. Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) declared, “‘All men are created equal,’ says the great Declaration, and now a great act attests this verity.”

Sadly, this momentous event  was nearly blocked by prejudiced senators from Missouri and Delaware. However, this wasn’t the first time Pastor Revels had received flack on account of his skin color.

Born free in the slave state of North Carolina, Revels enjoyed an advantage over many in his day,  both black and white the value of higher education. After completing seminary, Revels traveled throughout Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee for about 15 years, educating fellow African-Americans in both the sacred and the secular.

Revels was a man of quiet, redoubtable courage. Compelled by his love of both his savior and his people, in 1853, Revels took on a pastorate of a black congregation in St. Louis, even though it was technically illegal for free black men to live in Missouri. Though he was otherwise a law-abiding citizen, Revels was imprisoned in 1854 for preaching to his black congregation. He knew the searing sting of hate in a way that few modern Americans do.

At the onset of the Civil War, Revels helped to organize two black regiments, serving as a chaplain in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi, before settling in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1866. It was here that he was elected to the office of state senator during the Reconstruction. Gaining a reputation for personal warmth and political compassion, Revels was selected by his peers to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate when that state was readmitted to the Union.

In a beautiful note of irony, the seat that Revels was to fill had once belonged to Jefferson Davis, a blatant racist who had abdicated his seat to become president of the Confederacy.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Revels was a Republican. Freed from slavery by a Republican president (Lincoln) and a Republican Congress, the majority of African-Americans at that time were Republicans. Yet, former slave owners (many of whom were Democrats) banded together to form the Ku Klux Klan to recoup their lost power, lynching and intimidating black and white Republicans alike. Despite the blatant racism across the aisle, Revels chose to forget and forgive.

Despite the fact that many in the South still nursed bitter prejudice, Revels advocated for a generous amnesty of former Confederates, stating, “I am in favor of removing the disabilities of those upon whom they are imposed in the South, just as fast as they give evidence of having become loyal and being loyal.”

Revels is an example to all Americans, black and white alike. We can see in his life an extraordinary measure of grace and forbearance, even in the midst of appalling racism.

As our nation becomes increasingly divided, we at Oakland University must choose a different path. Like Revels, we must bless when we are cursed, love when we are hated and forgive those who do us ill.

Isaac Martin can be contacted at [email protected]