Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review

The line that runs from the Emancipation Proclamation to the inauguration of President Barack Obama goes right through the group of extraordinary men who were the first African Americans to serve as members of Congress.  Philip Dray tells their story in his book Capitol Men.   

Dray does a marvelous job telling the story of these often overlooked men and tying their story into the larger one of Reconstruction.  Drey tells how many of these men came up from slavery and achieved so much.  He also tells how their ambitions, and those of Reconstruction, were thwarted by violence, illegality, and cowardice.  

This book is well written but it took me a while for me to read because there was so much to think about.  For me, it was enlightening to read how many of the same tactics used to undermine Reconstruction are used to prop up power structures today; especially in the South.  Tracing the line from opposition to Reconstruction and cvil rights for freed slaves to today's conservative opposition to "big government" was a sobering experience.

I would have like to see more of how the African American congressmen actually governed and I would have like to see more of how they dealt with the wider range of issues that came before the Congress.  I also would have liked to read more about how these extraordinary men interacted with each other.  However, these are minor complaints.

Before I read Capitol Men I knew that Joseph Rainey was the first African  American to serve in the House of Representatives and that Hiram Revels was the first African American Senator.  I also heard of Blanche K Bruce.  However, the extraordinary lives of these great men came alive in Drey's book.  I also learned of Robert Smalls who once stole a Confederate blockade runner and turned it over to the Union  Navy and Robert Brown Elliot who bested former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in a debate on the House floor.

If you want to learn more about the forerunners of President Obama and their struggles then read Capitol Men

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