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(1868) Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, “I Claim the Rights of a Man”

African Methodist Episcopal minister and later Bishop Henry McNeal Turner emerged immediately after the Civil War as one of the most ardent defenders of African Ameriacn rights. Turner was also among the first group of Reconstruction-era African American elected officials. In July 1868, Turner was among the two state senators and twenty-five black Republican state representatives elected to serve in the Georgia legislature. Less than two months later, Georgia Democrats, the majority of the legislature, boldly expelled all of the black members. On September 3, 1868, Turner stood before the assembled representatives and denounced the legislators who had refused to seat the African American senators and representatives. That speech appears below.

Mr. Speaker: Before proceeding to argue this question upon its intrinsic merits, I wish the members of this House to understand the position that I take. I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights. Some of my colored fellow members, in the course of their remarks, took occasion to appeal to the sympathies of members on the opposite side, and to eulogize their character for magnanimity. It reminds me very much, sir, of slaves begging under the lash. I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. There is an old aphorism which says, "fight the devil with fire," and if I should observe the rule in this instance, I wish gentlemen to understand that it is but fighting them with their own weapon.

The scene presented in this House, today, is one unparalleled in the history of the world. From this day, back to the day when God breathed the breath of life into Adam, no analogy for it can be found. Never, in the history of the world, has a man been arraigned before a body clothed with legislative, judicial or executive functions, charged with the offense of being a darker hue than his fellow men. I know that

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