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Edwin Garrison Walker: An able lawyer and legislator

Anthony W. Neal | 7/4/2013, 6 a.m.

Walker was elected to the Massachusetts General Court as a Republican from Charlestown’s Third Ward on Nov. 6, 1866, becoming the first black man elected to a state legislature in the United States. That same day, the residents of Boston’s Ward Six elected black Civil War veteran Charles Lewis Mitchell state representative as well.

There had always been a friendly dispute between the two as to who was truly the first black man elected to the Massachusetts legislature. Walker reasoned that he was elected first because Charlestown’s polls closed an hour earlier, and the vote was returned and published two hours earlier than in Boston.

While serving in the House in 1867, Walker championed women’s suffrage, and he and Mitchell were part of a tiny minority who had voted against ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They believed that it fell far short of guaranteeing full citizenship rights to Southern blacks. Full citizenship rights to them meant being politically vested. Thus, they preferred an amendment that affirmatively prohibited “the disfranchisement of any citizen on account of color.”

Section two of the 14th Amendment gave the states the choice of either granting suffrage to all adult male citizens, or suffering a reduction of representation in Congress and in the Electoral College proportionate to the number denied the right to vote. Walker gave a speech on the House floor, warning that even with section two’s penalties, permitting racial disfranchisement would establish “a system of serfdom” and place black people—many who had fought to save the Union—“at the mercy of their enemies.”

He also sharply criticized the Republicans for failing to fully protect the interests of blacks, and it was because of his criticism, and the fact that he wouldn’t do their bidding, that they refused to re-nominate him for his House seat. This caused the bitter fight that Walker had so long waged against the party.

A prominent black man in the Republican Party, Walker’s dissatisfaction with it led him to abandon it. In fact, he, more than any other person, was responsible for more African Americans leaving the Republican Party in Massachusetts.

In 1881, Walker told a gathering at Monument Hall in the Bunker Hill district that the first newspaper that he had any recollection of ever trying to read was The Liberator — an abolitionist weekly founded by Garrison in 1831 — and from that he learned that “to oppress any part of God’s humanity [that] was wrong.” Like his father, he said that it was the right and the duty of the oppressed people to rise up and strike down their oppressors.

Walker was an enthusiastic supporter of Governor Benjamin F. Butler, a Democrat. The governor rewarded him for his support by nominating him as judge of the Municipal Court of Charlestown. The confirmation of Walker was backed by several respected black attorneys, including Butler R. Wilson, James H. Wolff and Edward Everett Brown, and by black former state representative John J. Smith.

As Walker was clearly qualified for the judgeship, it was generally thought that the Republican-controlled Executive Council would confirm his nomination for fear that the party would lose a large section of the black vote if it did not. But it rejected his nomination by a tie vote of four to four on Oct. 5, 1883.