Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 117 / Number 3
"From the Ashes of the Old Dominion: Accomodation, Immediacy, and Progressive Pragmatism in John Mercer Langston's Virginia"
- By Luis-Alejandro Dinnella-Borrego, pp. 214–249
This article examines the career of John Mercer Langston, the first African American to be elected to the House of Representatives from Virginia in the nineteenth century. My research focuses on the intellectual underpinnings behind several pieces of legislation he put forward before the U.S. Congress. I seek to explain why Langston supported certain legislative measures (such as a national literacy test amendment to the U.S. Constitution) which appear, on the surface, to be characterized by accommodation. My argument is that Langston actually embraces a middle ground between immediatism (a demand for immediate change) and accommodation, which I term progressive pragmatism. He desires immediate equality but is willing to use accommodationist tactics and a flexible (pragmatic) approach in order to achieve his ultimate goals. This study is situated within the field of African-American intellectual history, but rather than being a standard biographical work, it illustrates Langston's tactics by examining his rhetoric within the context of the socio-political environment in which he had to operate. Previous scholars have often been locked in a dichotomy between accommodationism and immediatism, without recognizing that many black leaders in this period probably used both tactics to achieve their goals. By using Langston's legislative endeavors, as a case study, future scholars may acknowledge that black political struggles for equality after the Civil War were more complex than have previously been thought.