WASHINGTON – The Senate galleries were packed, filled with both black and white spectators, and a murmur filled the air as the nation's first black member of Congress, Sen. Hiram Revels, stood to deliver his first speech to the chamber.
Nearly 140 years before Sen. Barack Obama's historic quest to become the nation's first black president, Revels captivated a nation in the midst of social upheaval following the Civil War. The date was March 16, 1870, less than five years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
"I rise," Revels said, "with feelings which perhaps (have) never before entered into the experience of this body."
Revels, a 42-year-old Mississippi Republican, was a product of postwar Reconstruction, when Republicans — including white northerners known as "carpetbaggers" and black southerners — dominated state governments in the South. The Mississippi Legislature, in which Revels served, voted with the backing of its black members to send him to the U.S. Senate. (Senators weren't popularly elected until 1913.)
"It would in their judgment be a weakening blow against color line prejudice," Revels wrote in his brief autobiography.
Revels was born free in Fayetteville, N.C., and like Obama, was of mixed-race background. Revels' mother was white, of Scottish heritage, and his father was black with possibly some Croatan Indian lineage.
He spent much of his career as a minister, and was once imprisoned in Missouri for preaching the gospel to blacks. He wrote that his preaching was generally tolerated in slave states as long as he didn't encourage slaves to run away. During the Civil War, he helped organize black regiments for the Union Army.
In his first Senate speech, which The Washington Post later called "the sensation of the town," he quickly made a point of assuring whites that they had nothing to fear from blacks seeking payback for slavery.
"They bear toward their former masters no revengeful thoughts, no hatreds, no animosities," he said.
While Obama faces obstacles in the presidential campaign because of his race, Revels had to surmount much more overt opposition. Just a few weeks before his speech, a small group of senators, mostly border state Democrats, spent three days trying to deny Revels his seat in the Senate.
Sen. Garrett Davis of Kentucky, a Democrat, mocked Republicans by declaring, "Oh ye Pharisees political! You who profess such obedience to the will of the people! You who represent universal democracy, not only the white man, but the Negro and the mulatto, and you now want to get in all the Mongolian race too!" He called Congress' 1866 law to extend citizenship to blacks a "farce."
Emotions were still raw in the Senate over the Civil War, and Sen. James Warren Nye, a Nevada Republican, said he pitied Davis.
"This is his last battlefield. It is the last opportunity he will have to make his fight," Nye said.
But if Davis' words strike a dated and racist tone, Nye's words proved to be naive: "It is the same old story of prejudice against the colored man which, I thank God, this nation has surmounted and overcome."
The Mississippi Legislature had appointed Revels and a white former Union general, Adelbert Ames, to fill the remaining years of terms for the state's two Senate seats, which had stood vacant since the beginning of the war. One had belonged to Jefferson Davis, who had walked out of the Senate in January 1861 and become president of the Confederacy.
Nye made the common mistake of saying that Revels had taken the seat once held by Davis; in reality, Revels was filling the other seat.
"Sir, what a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today," Nye said. "In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample under foot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat upon this floor."
The Republican-dominated Senate ultimately voted 48-8 to approve Revels' admission.
Revels was a moderate by temperament, favoring amnesty for former confederates, and his time as a senator lasted only about a year.
"He had a persona, sort of in a weird way, like Obama, in that he didn't really run as a race man," said Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian.
Revels did became something of a celebrity senator, going on lecture tours in the North and West. In Boston, abolitionist Wendell Phillips introduced Revels as the "15th Amendment in flesh and blood," referring to the constitutional change guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race.
"An astonishing ovation followed his footsteps in New England," The Washington Post said in a 1901 obituary. "Men and women of letters and public functionaries and university educators greeted him with enthusiasm as though a new prophet had arisen in the land."
Mississippi sent another black man to the U.S. Senate, a former slave named Blanche Bruce, who served a full term from 1875 to 1881, and the Reconstruction era also opened the door for black congressmen.
"Once they came to Congress, they were outsiders," said Matt Wasniewski, a House historian and editor of "Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007," being published this week by the House Office of History and Preservation. "They were potent symbols, but as far as legislation, they were pushed to the margin of power."
And the door was slammed shut to southern blacks by Jim Crow laws, which deprived blacks of political rights from the end of Reconstruction through the middle of the 20th Century.
Since Reconstruction, only three black senators have been elected, none from the South: Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke, Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, and Obama.