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Tunis G. Campbell fought for Black voting rights in Georgia Senate after Civil War - The Washington Post
He fought for Black voting rights after the Civil War. He was almost killed for it.
"From the floor of the Georgia Senate, Tunis G. Campbell could see the glint of firearms. As he spoke, his fellow senators moved their hands to the butts of their guns, gesturing ever more threateningly the longer Campbell held the floor. Undeterred, he went on. The state senator continued to speak for seven consecutive days, arguing for a simple right: to stand exactly where he was.
Campbell was Black. It was 1868, and after only a few months in office, his opponents had voted that his skin color alone disqualified him from holding political office. After the eighth day, Campbell headed to Washington to petition the federal government to reinstate him and several other Black political officeholders who had been denied their elected seats. He would stay in Washington for several months to lobby for bills promoting Reconstruction in Georgia. “We went on — although threatened by many rebel sympathizers that if I went to Washington again I should not live in Georgia,” he would later write in his autobiography.
He did return to live in Georgia, this time as a sworn state senator. His fight for the equal rights of Black citizens has been mostly forgotten, but Campbell was one of the earliest people in Reconstruction-era Georgia fighting voter suppression. Using a militia of several hundred people to protect himself and other Black residents from White violence, Campbell served as a labor organizer, justice of the peace, voter registrar and state senator.
Some 150 years later, amid racial justice protests and voter suppression efforts, Campbell remains emblematic of the struggle to ensure Black Americans not only the right to vote, but also to exercise the full scope of citizenship: as activists, as small-business owners and as politicians.
Campbell spent his life championing the rights of Black people, meeting with fierce resistance at every step. During the course of his political career, he would be threatened, suffer an attempted assassination, see his house burned down and even be imprisoned and put on a chain gang. Despite grave danger to his health and family, Campbell dedicated his life to ensuring that freedmen would be free in every sense of the word: safe from physical violence and exploitative labor practices, while being able to practice their constitutional rights. It was his work ensuring the enfranchisement of all voters that left its mark on McIntosh County, Ga., well into the 20th century.
Born in 1812, Campbell was the son of a free blacksmith in New Jersey. He worked as a head waiter in a New York City hotel before gaining recognition as an abolitionist and a preacher. He came to the South by order of a general under President Abraham Lincoln, who appointed Campbell as the guardian of several islands off the coast of Georgia.
By the mid-1860s, he was selected to be a registrar. He and a biracial group of registrars traveled to several counties registering voters, as part of a larger effort across the state. The several dozen statewide Black registrars were often greeted with brutal violence: Campbell and another Black registrar were poisoned. The other registrar died, according to Campbell.
Yet the drive to register voters in Reconstruction Georgia — both Black and White — was exceptionally successful. By the fall of 1867, approximately 80 percent of men, or nearly 200,000 potential voters, had been registered, according to historian Edmund L. Drago. That included not only recently emancipated Black residents, but also some 95,000 low-income White men. The Black registrars also served a symbolic function: providing “the first contact many Southerners, White and Black, ever had with a black office-holder,” Drago wrote.
Lynching and other vicious crimes were a near-daily occurrence across the South during Reconstruction. In 1868 in Georgia alone, there would be 355 “outrages,” or violent attacks against free men, women and children, according to sociologist Richard Hogan.
Campbell forged ahead. He was on the ground at polling places, urging Black voters to stand up for their newly won rights, under any circumstances.
“You see all of the things we see now. We see voter suppression. We see Whites blocking voting venues and courthouses,” said Russell Duncan, a historian and author of a biography on Campbell.
By then, President Andrew Johnson had restored voting rights to former Confederates, but many abstained from the vote for the mere fact that there were Black candidates on the ballot. Black voters did not abstain, however, and many of them cast their first vote ever for Campbell. He cruised to victory.
When Campbell traveled to Washington after White opponents tried to deny him his seat, he spoke to Charles Sumner about the need for a 15th Amendment. Duncan suggests that Campbell’s specific wording for the amendment may have ended up in the Constitution itself. As a state senator, Campbell continued to lobby for fair voting practices, integrated juries, equal opportunities for education, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt.
Campbell’s remarkable political career came to an abrupt halt in what one historian called a “judicial lynching.” As a justice of the peace, Campbell arbitrated both Black and White residents. He was known for levying fines on White landowners who mistreated their Black laborers. Some of the people had enslaved hundreds just a few years earlier — and appearing before a Black justice of the peace enraged them.
Campbell would be indicted on multiple charges in the mid-1870s, largely trumped up by those who saw the opportunity to finally oust him from the Georgia political arena. He petitioned many of his allies and sought a pardon from the governor and even from President Ulysses S. Grant. But those efforts failed. Campbell, then in his sixties, served his time — hard labor on a chain gang — and he left Georgia for good shortly afterward.
Just as early Reconstruction had ushered in a brief golden age of Black officeholders, they were violently ushered out. Historians estimate that some 2,000 Black people served in political roles during Reconstruction — as sheriffs, city councilors and members of Congress — a number not to be achieved again until the 1960s.
“There is almost always backlash, throughout U.S. history, to Black people gaining rights or making advancements,” said Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, an assistant professor of African American history who researches the Civil War and Reconstruction era. “And it’s not always just the backlash of the virulent racists; it’s also where they’re thrown to the wolves by people who are supposed to be their allies.”
Campbell may never have returned to Georgia, but his work left an indelible mark on McIntosh County. The region would remain — for the next four decades — a stronghold of Black political power."