Since Reconstruction, there have only been four black senators. Three of them -- Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris -- have held the seat that Kirk is about to occupy.
For reasons that go back more than a century, all the way to the First Great Migration from the South, Illinois has led the nation in black political empowerment. We’ve elected more black statewide officials than anyone else. We produced the first black president. And it was a matter of pride among many Illinoisans that we kept the Senate integrated. In 2004, we picked such a great black senator that he went on to integrate the presidency.
This is no slur against Kirk. It’s not a slur against Illinois, either. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to provide a black senator. It’s a slur against the other 49 states, who, since reconstruction, have refused to elect a black politician to the U.S. Senate. African-Americans make up 12 percent of this country’s population. Their presence in America goes back nearly 400 years -- “Before the Mayflower,” as the title of a history of black America puts. Yet after 4 p.m. today, African-Americans will make up 0 percent of the nation’s most prestigious elective body. That’s disgraceful.
But I hope Kirk will be conscious of the historic nature of his Senate seat. Based on an interview published in the Tribune on Sunday, I think he is. Kirk spoke about the need for the Republican Party to avoid cultural issues, and focus on economics.
“We should stay away from some of the more divisive issues in which we don’t have consensus,” he said.
Kirk won’t be a black senator, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a senator for black America. Kirk can find a role model in another occupant of his seat. Long before Moseley Braun and Obama, Illinois was represented by Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Pekin. As Senate Minority Leader, Dirksen broke the Southern Democrats’ filibuster of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 -- the longest filibuster in Senate history.
“I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind,” Dirksen said, after the bill was passed.
Every senator should live by that motto. But especially a senator from the Land of Lincoln.