Rep. Joseph Rainey was a principled Republican representing South Carolina in the 44th – 45th sessions of congress. He served on the following committees: Freedmen’s Affairs, Indian Affairs, Invalid Pensions, Select Committee on the Centennial Celebration and the Proposed Nation Census of 1875, and the Committee on the Freedmen’s Bank.
The Ku Klux Klan Act
On April 20, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Ku Klux Klan Act, which attempted to stop the murderous arm of the Democratic Party, which was determined to deny blacks their rights. Despite passage of this law, the KKK continued unabated. Rep. Rainey had delivered a rousing speech in support of the Klan act, stating, “When myself and my colleagues shall leave these Halls and turn our footsteps toward our southern homes, we know not that the assassin may await our coming, as marked for his vengeance.”
After his speech, Rainey and other civil rights advocates received death threats telling them “to prepare to meet your God.” The Klan act was ignored by white supremacists, and the Democrats in congress who opposed the act voted to eliminate funding. Rep. Rainey took to the floor of the House again to call for funding to enforce the act.
Senator Charles Sumner’s Civil Right Bill of 1875 sought to guarantee the rights of blacks to serve on juries, to attend schools, to use public transportation and other public facilities. Rainey supported political amnesty for returning Confederates, but along with Sumner thought it required additional guarantees for black. Rainey had experienced firsthand the violations of his civil rights in taverns and on public transportation. Rainey eloquently explained, “We are earnest in our support of the Government. We were earnest in the house of the nation’s perils and dangers; and now, in our country’s comparative peace and tranquility, we are earnest for our rights.”
Rainey emphasized desegregation in the public schools and argued that income from the sale of public lands should be used to support public education. He had supported a poll tax to fund education, but his Republican colleagues contended that such a tax would disenfranchise freed slaves. The senate bill that passed was greatly flawed, failing to support desegregation and equality in the schools.
Rainey did not limit his struggle for civil rights to the plight of blacks; he also fought against unfair treatment of Indians. He was appointed to the Committee on Indian Affairs and presided over the House, becoming the first African American to preside over that legislative body. Rainey moderated the appropriations bills debate directing the management of Indian reservations. Rainey also stood against restrictions on Asian immigration.
Rainey’s Response to Rep. Samuel S. Cox
After New York Democrat Samuel S. Cox rose and made insulting remarks about the black representatives from South Carolina, Rep. Rainey responded with a blistering rebuttal, including the following: “[Mr. Cox] is a gentleman of talent and of fine education, and I have thought heretofore that he would certainly be charitable toward a race of people who have never enjoyed the same advantages that he has. If the colored people of South Carolina had been accorded the same advantages—if they had had the same wealth and surroundings which the gentleman from New York has had, they would have shown to this nation that their color was no obstacle to their holding positions of trust, political or otherwise.”
Rainey concluded his notable speech by addressing the Democratic Party:
I say to you, gentlemen of the Democratic Party, that I want you to deal justly with the people composing my race. I am here representing a Republican constituency made up of white and colored men. I say to you deal with us justly; be charitable toward us. An opportunity will soon present itself when we can test whether you on that side of the House are the best friends of the oppressed and ill-treated Negro race. When the civil rights bill comes before you, when that bill comes up upon its merits asking you to give civil rights of the Negro, I will then see who are our best friends on that side of the House.Final Years
After Democratic control strengthened in South Carolina, Rainey lost his seat to Democrat John S. Richardson in the race for the 1879–1881 46th Congress. Rainey was appointed special agent to the Treasury Department in 1879, a position in which he served for two years.
Rainey started a bank and brokerage firm in 1881 which he ran for five years. He also managed coals mines and a lumber yard until ill health forced him to relocate back to his hometown. Rainey and his wife, Susan, also operated a millinery shop.
On August 1, 1887, after a life many firsts and much personal and political success, Rep. Joseph Rainey died of malaria.
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