In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Americans in the United States House of Representatives

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources

African American Studies African Americans in the United States House of Representatives
Menna Demessie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0049


Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the passage of the Civil War amendments laid the foundation for the mobilization, integration, and full participation of African Americans into the American political and electoral system. While the abolition of slavery, due process and equal protection under the law, and the right for black men to vote were etched into the Constitution, the ability of government to ensure the full implementation of these rights fell gravely short. Furthermore, the Reconstruction era brought great challenges to the advancement of equal protection and opportunity for approximately 4 million newly freed slaves. As early as 1873, Rep. John Roy Lynch, born into slavery, would later serve as the first and only African American elected representative from Mississippi; he wrote prolifically on the challenges of actualizing the Civil War amendments in a groundbreaking book titled The Facts of Reconstruction (Lynch 1913, cited under General Overviews), and spent his political career fighting to secure the promises of emancipation for his fellow African Americans against the racist southern Democrats. Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under our Feet (Hahn 2003, cited under General Overviews) expounds on the extraordinary plight, activism, and political mobilization of African American slaves during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, and on their political prowess in facilitating the largest modern slave rebellion, which led to slaves taking up arms to assist the Union army in defeating the Southern Confederacy. The reality is that the Union defeat of the Confederacy and abolishment of slavery was met with stark and violent resistance from the South against blacks, including terror, violence, murder, rape, and political exclusion of blacks from voting, education, entertainment, etc., that continued for another hundred years and was the impetus of the civil rights movement. In “Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (Litwack 1998, cited under General Overviews), Leon Litwack discusses the devastating and dangerous years of Jim Crow racist oppression that southerners continued to implement against the Constitution even after slavery was abolished. Scholars and historians alike would closely analyze the extent to which major legislative victories promoting justice and equality for African Americans were truly realized and implemented, while also paying close attention to equally subversive efforts to continue racial oppression and curb democratic freedoms for African Americans. For example, the “Black Codes” were restrictive laws aimed at ensuring slave labor could still survive even after abolition. This laid the groundwork for Jim Crow laws in the post–civil rights era, which included literacy tests, lynchings, and grandfather clauses, and ultimately served as a barrier and threat disallowing black voter participation, as discussed in American Government: Continuity and Change (O’Conner and Sabato 2006, under General Overviews). Indeed, the severe violence and oppression of African Americans did not end with the abolishment of slavery. In fact, the most notorious white supremacist terrorist paramilitary group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was formed in 1865 and exists today. The KKK became the foundation of southern white resistance during Reconstruction; it operated in cooperation with southern state governments and, in an effort to curb black equality and progress, engaged in terrorist activity, including bombings of black churches and homes; lynchings, or the hanging black men, women, and children with nooses from a tree; and would later promote racial segregation through the same means as legislative victories for black equality began to take shape. Scholars have analyzed the significance with which the Progressive Era, abolition of slavery, and civil rights movement led to passage of key pieces of legislation that helped increase and sustain the right to vote and elect African Americans to Congress. However, with the highest number of African Americans serving in the 114th Congress under the first black president elected in the United States, it is not altogether clear that more black members elected to the US House of Representatives translates directly into more substantive representation with regard to upward economic mobility, black empowerment for African Americans, and shifts in the typology of congressional black leadership. With the increasing numbers of African Americans elected to Congress, emerging scholarship on the role of descriptive and substantive representation continues to pay close attention to the degree to which the former can explain the latter; it is through this analytical framework that voting trends in the black body politic and patterns of African American legislative behavior in the post–civil rights era are measured.

General Overviews

African Americans in the US House of Representatives have been inextricably linked to the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and rooted in a collective effort to represent black interests and concerns in response to a democratic system of governance that excluded the equal participation and integration of African Americans. Established in 1971, the CBC was termed the “Conscience of Congress,” as it was rooted in a historical narrative of ensuring freedom, justice, and equality following the civil rights movement. Scholars have expounded on theories of descriptive and substantive representation to explain black legislative behavior, and such terms have been articulated in an effort to understand both the election of black candidates to office as well as the collective policy concerns of African Americans within their districts and across the nation. Following Myrdal 1944, which centered the solution to racial animus and segregation with the same white communities responsible for perpetuating it, scholars continued to analyze and introduce the significance of African Americans’ political behavior in an attempt to locate and account for substantial progress in the post–civil rights era. Hence, African American members of Congress and the formation of the CBC were critical in the political representation and advancement of African Americans’ rights, benefits, and full integration into American democracy. Pitkin 1967 set the stage for scholarship on descriptive and substantive representation and explored the value of racial representation and democratic accountability. Pitkin defined descriptive representation, or “standing for,” as understood in the literature, to exist when legislators and the constituents they represent share some distinctive and defining characteristics and substantive representation, whereas “acting for” occurs when legislators act on constituent interests unrelated to their personal background or group membership. Diamond 1977 built on Pitkin’s analysis as it related to the ability of women legislators to more substantively represent women’s interests and concluded there was no relationship. Swain 1993 similarly concluded that with respect to racial descriptive representation, it was not the case that more black members of Congress equated to more substantive representation of black interests. However, works such as Dovi 2002 and Fenno 2003 would later refute Pitkin’s assessment and that or others, laying the foundation for empirical research substantiating the distinct and measurable relationship between descriptive representation and substantive representation; Dovi and Fenno conclude that descriptive representation was an essential factor in political and legislative behavior with respect to a host of attributes, including race and gender. They argued that voters feel represented when an elected official acts in ways that promote their shared policies, and for African Americans, descriptive and substantive representation are distinctly tied. That is, black legislators are better able to represent the interests of African Americans, and this has been the narrative largely explaining both election outcomes and the high rate of reelection of African Americans in Congress by large segments of the African American population.

  • Demessie, Menna Aklilu. “Navigating Boundaries of Blackness: Congressional Caucuses, U.S. Foreign Policy, and African Affairs.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2010.

    Discusses a new perspective on descriptive and substantive representation based on race by exploring legislative behavior in congressional caucuses that serve black ethnic communities.

  • Diamond, Irene. Sex Roles in the State House. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    Seminal empirical study of women legislators in the state of New Hampshire, a state with the highest percentage of women legislators. This study elaborates on the influence of population ratios and a demand for higher wage jobs as the impetus leading to the high degree of women legislators who were otherwise not interested or compelled to serve the particular needs of women constituents at the time.

  • Dovi, Suzanne. “Preferable Descriptive Representatives: Will Just Any Woman, Blacks, or Latinos Do.” American Political Science Review 96.4 (2002): 729–743.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055402000412

    Critiques Pitkin’s notion of political representation and democratic accountability through an analysis and literature review of theoretical arguments around racial descriptive representation.

  • Fenno, Richard F. Going Home: Black Representatives and their Constituents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226241326.001.0001

    A thorough qualitative assessment following African American members of the US House of Representatives in their home districts and analyzing the influence of racial and symbolic representation.

  • Hahn, Steven. A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003.

    Detailed account of the political activism, mobilization, and strategy of African American slaves in the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War amendments, and in the critical years following the Civil War known as the Reconstruction era.

  • Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

    Comprehensive and detailed account of the Jim Crow era and the century-long manifestation of racial oppression against blacks after the abolishment of slavery.

  • Lynch, John. The Facts of Reconstruction. New York: Neale, 1913.

    Firsthand account and analysis from Rep. John Roy Lynch of the failures of American democracy to procure the rights for newly freed slaves following Emancipation and particularly during Reconstruction.

  • Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper, 1944.

    A study of the integration of African Americans from slavery into the American polity.

  • O’Conner, Karen, and Larry Sabato. American Government: Continuity and Change. New York: Pearson Education, 2006.

    Discusses the history of American government and the evolution of civil rights in American democracy as it pertains to the passage of the Civil War amendments.

  • Pitkin, Hanna. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    A comprehensive theoretical analysis of descriptive and substantive representation, laying the groundwork in the field of political science.

  • Swain, Carol M. Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    An analysis of black legislative behavior and roll-call data across four types of congressional districts with various racial compositions—historically black, newly black, heterogeneous, and white—and concludes that the election of black legislators and sustained representation of black interests is contingent upon multiracial coalitions and the election of white representatives who can also serve black interests.

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