Representative Billy Mitchell (D) represents the historic city of Stone Mountain, Ga., where he served on the City Council and as vice mayor before being elected to the General Assembly in 2002. While on the council, he sponsored legislation permitting the city to erect the “Freedom Bell,” commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortation to, “Let freedom ring, from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” in his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the legislature, Mitchell was the first freshman legislator to serve as an officer of the Legislative Black Caucus, and the first freshman to serve on an oversight committee. He sponsored more legislation signed into law during his first term than any other freshman lawmaker. He has received many awards, including the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus’ Legislator of the Year award, its highest honor.
Mitchell has served on NCSL’s Executive Committee and currently is president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. He lent his voice to NCSL’s Building Democracy podcast by reading “I Claim the Rights of a Man,” the impassioned speech delivered in 1868 by the influential Reconstruction-era minister and Georgia Representative Henry McNeal Turner. (Listen to Mitchell reading the speech here or below.)
We sat down with Mitchell to discuss Turner’s significance in shaping American history by standing up for his civil rights.
What drew you to run for the Georgia House of Representatives?
I once had little interest in elective office, although I did have an early appreciation of the power of public policy. I was attending law school when the [Stone Mountain] City Council was contemplating placing a trash recycling center near my community, despite objections from the residents. I was able to marshal some resources, experts and other community groups, and we defeated that attempt. At the time, there was an opening on the zoning board, which I was then appointed to.
Upon graduation from law school, a City Council seat came open and I was encouraged to run, literally drafted. A similar situation occurred in the legislature. A seat was created as a result of redistricting in 2002, and having that appreciation of public policy, I had come to learn that the only people who create public policy in this country are elected officials. So here I am.
Tell us about Representative Henry McNeal Turner and the group called the Original 33.
The Original 33, as they came to be called, references Henry McNeal Turner and 32 other African Americans elected to the Georgia legislature in 1868 during the Reconstruction era. In fact, they were among the first African American state legislators in the entire United States.
I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. —Representative Henry McNeal Turner, Georgia, 1868
But less than two months later, white legislators—the majority of the legislature—boldly expelled all of the Black members. On Sept. 3, 1868, Turner stood before the assembled representatives and passionately denounced those who had refused to seat the African Americans in his “I Claim the Rights of a Man” speech.
What happened then?
Subsequently, the expelled legislators petitioned the federal government and state courts to intervene. And the Supreme Court of Georgia eventually ruled that Black people did indeed have a right to hold office in Georgia. In January 1870, the [Union Army general and] commanding general of the District of Georgia, Alfred Terry, began what has become known as “Terry’s Purge” by removing ex-Confederates from the General Assembly and reinstating the Black legislators.
In the legislature, Turner proved to have an incredible knack for forming alliances with white legislators in both parties. He was a leader and got much accomplished, including choosing new U.S. senators. State lawmakers chose their U.S. senators back in those days. They adopted public school education and they ratified the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that the rights of citizens to vote could not be denied or abridged by the U.S. or any state because of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
Most African Americans were Republicans in this era, and during the next election cycle Redeemer Democrats, as they were called, won majorities in both houses. They enacted harsh recriminations against Republicans and African Americans using terror, intimidation and the Ku Klux Klan, leading to complete disenfranchisement of the Black population by the 1890s.
During this time, a quarter of the Black legislators were either killed, threatened, beaten or jailed. No African American held a seat again in the Georgia General Assembly until 1962.
I find it somewhat ironic that I am now the legislator that represents Stone Mountain, which used to be the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan.
What else can you tell us about Turner?
Turner was an ordained minister, a prolific preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was founded in protest by ex-slaves in Philadelphia when they were denied the opportunity to worship with dignity. Turner would later be elected bishop and develop AME churches around the state. And I am a lifelong member and current officer of one of the AME churches he founded.
At the age of 29, Turner was appointed by President Lincoln to the position of chaplain in the Union Army, making him the first African American chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.
President Ulysses Grant appointed Turner postmaster of Macon, Ga., and soon thereafter he was appointed president of Morris Brown College in Atlanta.
Is the legislature going to honor Turner?
We do not have one statue inside the Georgia Capitol of an African American. We’re undergoing a debate, as many communities and states are going through in this country, on what do we do with the dozens of Confederate statues and memorials that we have in the Capitol. One such proposal that I am spearheading is that we replace some or one of them with a statue of Henry McNeal Turner. His contribution to the state certainly is undeniable.
Megan McClure is co-host of the Building Democracy podcast and a research analyst with NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program. This interview was edited for length and clarity.