“Half Free, Half Slave” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Representative James Rapier, an Alabama Republican, was one of three African Americans who held congressional office during Reconstruction. Strong Republican support for African American rights and political involvement during this period meant that a number of black leaders were able to turn temporary Republican majorities in Southern states into political success. While in office, these black leaders encouraged the enshrinement of black civil rights into law, and a speech Rapier gave in 1875 is a prime example of such efforts. He delivered this speech, his most famous, to support what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the second civil rights bill in American history, and the last until the mid-twentieth century. Rapier's speech is remarkable not only for his passion, but also because it revealed the intersection of black political involvement with black military service in the Civil War, Social Darwinism, nineteenth-century American gender norms, US international relationships, and the rise of socialist and communist movements in Europe.

Summary Overview

Representative James Rapier, an Alabama Republican, was one of three African Americans who held congressional office during Reconstruction. Strong Republican support for African American rights and political involvement during this period meant that a number of black leaders were able to turn temporary Republican majorities in Southern states into political success. While in office, these black leaders encouraged the enshrinement of black civil rights into law, and a speech Rapier gave in 1875 is a prime example of such efforts. He delivered this speech, his most famous, to support what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the second civil rights bill in American history, and the last until the mid-twentieth century. Rapier's speech is remarkable not only for his passion, but also because it revealed the intersection of black political involvement with black military service in the Civil War, Social Darwinism, nineteenth-century American gender norms, US international relationships, and the rise of socialist and communist movements in Europe.

Defining Moment

Rapier gave his speech in support of one of the most important pieces of legislation in the Reconstruction era, Republican Charles Sumner's Civil Rights Act, first introduced in 1870. The bill explicitly forbade racial discrimination in public transportation, such as trains, and in other public places, such as restaurants, schools, and cemeteries. In addition to his arguments that black civil rights should be granted on moral, religious, and practical grounds, Rapier tackled two emerging issues of the late nineteenth century that challenged black attainment of civil rights. Thus, his speech revealed the deep connections between black civil rights and other significant global developments during the 1800s.

By the 1870s, Charles Darwin's ideas concerning evolution and natural selection had inspired theorists such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner to develop the racist tenets of Social Darwinism, which posited that the “survival of the fittest” principle that governed the natural world also applied to human society; thus, the fact that white Europeans had colonized and enslaved Africans and other peoples implied that whites were the “fittest” humans, with greater capacities for intelligence, government, and industry than other races. Many white leaders in both the United States and European nations used these ideas to justify white rule and expansion around the world from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Rapier condemned such beliefs “that the Negro is not a man and is not entitled to all the public rights common to other men.” He also famously asserted, “Either I am a man or I am not a man.” Of course, Rapier believed he was a man, and thus, he–and all African Americans–should have guaranteed civil rights.

The second issue that Rapier exposed was the faulty equation of socialist or communist movements with black civil rights, a comparison that many segregationists would employ much more widely throughout the twentieth century. Even in the mid-1870s, however, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx's 1848 The Communist Manifesto was over twenty-five years old and the Paris Commune had just occurred. While Rapier did not use the terms “socialist” or “communist” openly, he argued that African Americans were not trying to “break down all Social barriers” and that the bill “does not and cannot contemplate any such ideas as social equality.” By this, Rapier meant that, while African Americans wanted their political and civil rights enshrined in law, they were arguing for equality of opportunity only, not the sort of equality of outcome that communism envisions.

Author Biography

Rapier was born in 1837 in Alabama to a father who was a former slave and had become a successful barber. Rapier worked variously as a teacher and farmer until joining the Republican Party during Reconstruction and becoming active in various local, state, national, and international endeavors. Rising through the ranks, he won election to Congress in 1872 and worked in Washington, DC, from 1873 to 1875. He ran for a second term, but a Republican rival caused the Republican vote to split and a Democratic win to result. In addition, with Northern support ebbing near the end of Reconstruction, which officially ended in 1877, he was part of a wave of African American politicians who began losing their positions in the mid-1870s and onward. He remained involved in local politics and issues affecting the black population in the South, such as immigration to Kansas, until his death from tuberculosis in 1883.

Document Analysis

Rapier employs several different types of arguments to support Sumner's 1875 civil rights bill. Throughout the speech, Rapier notes a disconnect between the espousals of democracy and freedom by white Americans and the actual condition of African Americans. He argues that having political rights means nothing if they are not accompanied by civil rights. In addition, the diverse types of arguments he employs on behalf of the bill are what make his speech so interesting, because he also uses nineteenth-century gender roles, international affairs, and black military service to support black civil rights.

In the 1870s, women were generally seen as holding more and stronger virtues than men, and Rapier attempts to appeal to this ideal by claiming that, simply because they were black, “tender, pure, intelligent young ladies are forced to travel” with “drunkards” and corpses. He is suggesting that to protect all female virtue, Congress must pass the bill. Rapier also uses gender in a more graphic, although certainly historically accurate, way when he later notes that a number of white men had fathered children with black women; thus, he wonders why black men are so ridiculed “while at the same time [the white man] has a fondness for the females of the same race to the extent of cohabitation.” Rapier is highlighting the hypocrisy that white men considered their sexual relationships with black women to be acceptable but did not think black men should have civil rights.

Rapier also attempts to use the United States' international image in support of the bill. While the immense wave of eastern and southern European immigration would not begin until the 1880s, the United States had certainly experienced previous waves of immigrant settlement, most notably in the 1840s, when large numbers of Irish and Germans arrived in the United States, and many whites considered the United States a bastion of freedom and refuge amid a world still populated by kings and despots. By noting “the popular but untruthful declaration that this land is the asylum of the oppressed,” Rapier hints that the lack of black civil rights undermines the image of a nation of democracy and freedom that many white American leaders wanted to project internationally.

Thirdly, Rapier invokes African American military service during the Civil War as a key reason to grant black civil rights. He points out that black servicemen began to join the Union Army at exactly the time when immense Union losses, especially in the spring and summer of 1864, could have undermined the war effort. Exposing the fact that many of his fellow representatives had fought for or served a government in rebellion to the United States, he states that the black soldier “made bare his breast to the steel, and in it received the thrusts of the bayonet that were aimed at the life of the nation by the soldiers of that government in which the gentleman from Georgia figured as second officer.” As African Americans would also do after World War I and World War II, Rapier uses black military service as an example of African Americans' patriotism and a reason that they deserved their full civil rights.

Essential Themes

Rapier's presence in Congress in the 1870s and the passage of the 1875 Civil Rights Act that he supported are relevant to the way historians have argued about this period ever since. For decades, members of a group of historians known as the Dunning School presented racist images of African Americans and argued that Reconstruction was oppressive and unfair to white Southerners. Some black writers, including W. E. B. Du Bois, tried to combat these claims, but it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that these dominant interpretations were consistently challenged. Then, in 1988, historian Eric Foner's impressive Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 appeared. Rather than a period of Northern aggression against the South or even the comparably better image of a period that tried hard to achieve changes in the South and failed, Foner argued that Reconstruction was “a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.” In addition, rather than viewing African Americans as upstarts, like the Dunning School, or as victims, as other historians tended to do, Foner claimed, “Blacks were active agents in the making of Reconstruction.… Their quest for individual and community autonomy did much to establish Reconstruction's political and economic agenda.” Thus Rapier, the other African American members of Congress, and the hundreds of black state and local officeholders in the South in the 1860s and 1870s clearly illustrated Foner's point that Reconstruction was a tremendous period of opportunity for African Americans. Likewise, Rapier's speech in support of Sumner's bill revealed that African Americans were actively engaged in advancing their collective position in the South and across the entire nation.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Black Legislators: Primary Sources.” American Experience: Reconstruction, The Second Civil War. PBS Online/WGBH, 12 Dec. 2003. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Lynch, Matthew, ed. Legacies Lost. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012. Print.
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