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Constitution Day 2020 – “The Bulwark of Freedom”: African-American Members of Congress and the Constitution During Reconstruction

The Law Library of Congress and the Library of Congress Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement are excited to announce our annual Constitution and Citizenship Day lecture on September 17th at 3 p.m. EDT. This year’s lecture will be an online event and will be given by Michael J. Murphy, a historical publications specialist in the Office of the Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives. He earned his Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stony Brook University in New York. To register for this lecture, please visit our Eventbrite page.

Michael J. Murphy, a Historical Publications Specialist in the Office of the Historian for the United States House of Representatives. Photo courtesy of Michael J. Murphy.

Michael J. Murphy is a historical publications specialist in the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives.  Photo courtesy of Michael J. Murphy.

Constitution Day, officially known as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” is a federal commemoration observed each year to mark the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787, and to “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.” This year’s lecture is titled “The Bulwark of Freedom”: African-American Members of Congress and the Constitution During Reconstruction.

Mr. Murphy explains that in 1870, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first of 14 African Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives before the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Following the Civil War, Congress amended the Constitution to outlaw slavery, extend civil and political rights to African Americans, and expand the power of the federal government. Rainey and the small cohort of Black Representatives who served alongside him were all elected from southern states and many were formerly enslaved. They saw the Constitution as a battleground in the debate over Reconstruction and the future of the country, arguing for an expansive vision of citizenship and legal equality. For Rainey, the Constitution was “the bulwark of freedom,” designed to provide “protection to the humblest citizen, without regard to rank, creed, or color.” During the 1870s, Black Members embraced the Constitution—the founding document which had long denied them their very personhood—as a tool to redefine American democracy and fully realize the promise of representative government.

 

Joseph H. Rainey. Negative from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. (Created between 1860 and 1875). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.00664

Joseph H. Rainey. Negative from the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. (Created between 1860 and 1875). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.00664

We hope you can join us for this event to learn about the lives of the first African Americans in Congress. Please click here to register. 

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