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William Levi Dawson
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
January 3, 1943 – November 9, 1970
Preceded by Arthur W. Mitchell
Succeeded by Ralph H. Metcalfe
Personal details
Born (1886-04-26)April 26, 1886
Albany, Georgia
Died November 9, 1970(1970-11-09) (aged 84)
Chicago, Illinois
Political party Republican before 1939, Democratic after 1939
Military service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1917–1919
Rank First Lieutenant
Unit 366th Infantry Regiment
Battles/wars World War I

William Levi Dawson (April 26, 1886 – November 9, 1970) was an African-American politician who represented Chicago, Illinois for more than 27 years in the United States House of Representatives. In the 1940s he was active in the civil rights movement and sponsored registration drives. After 1952 he became closely aligned with the Democratic city machine, collaborating often with Mayor Richard J. Daley. In a new role he focused on patronage for his constituents and avoided involvement in civil rights issues, and gave no support to the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. to shake up city politics.[1]

Early life and education[edit | edit source]

Dawson was born in Albany, Georgia in 1886. He attended the local public school and graduated from Albany Normal School in 1905, which prepared teachers for lower schools. He went on to graduate magna cum laude in 1909 from Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

He moved to Illinois in 1912 to study at Northwestern University Law School in Evanston. He was initiated into Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Theta Chapter.

Career[edit | edit source]

After the entry of the U.S. into World War I, Dawson served in France as a first lieutenant with the 366th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army from 1917 until 1919. After returning home, he was admitted to the bar in 1920 and started private practice in Chicago.

He began his political career as a member of the Republican Party in 1930 as a state central committeeman for the First Congressional District of Illinois. He held this position until 1932. He was elected as an alderman for the second ward of Chicago from 1933 until 1939 and as a Democratic Party committeeman after 1939.

Dawson was elected as a Democratic Representative from Illinois to the Seventy-eighth and to the thirteen succeeding Congresses, serving from January 3, 1943 until his death from pneumonia in Chicago, Illinois in 1970. In addition to influencing national policy, he acted as a mentor for rising young black politicians in Chicago, such as Archibald Carey, Jr., helping with their elections and federal appointments.

During his tenure in the House, Dawson was a vocal opponent of the poll tax, which in practice was discriminatory against poorer voters.[2] Since the end of the nineteenth century, poll taxes were among a variety of measures passed by southern states to disfranchise most black voters and many poor whites as well. Dawson is credited with defeating the Winstead Amendment. Proposed by Representative William Winstead of Mississippi after the Truman administration integrated the United States armed forces following World War II, it would have allowed military members to opt out of racially integrated units.

In 1952, Dawson was the featured speaker at the first annual conference of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (a civil rights organization), held in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. He was invited by Dr. T.R.M. Howard, who headed the RCNL. He was the first black congressman to speak in the state since Reconstruction ended in 1877.

Dawson, a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), had the long-term goal of increasing national black support for the party; since the Civil War, most blacks had been allied with the Republican Party. Howard became Dawson's Republican opponent in the 1958 election, but Dawson kept his seat.[3]

Dawson was the first African American to serve as the chairman of a regular congressional committee, leading the Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments in the Eighty-first and Eighty-second Congresses. He served on the Committee on Government Operations in the Eighty-fourth through Ninety-first Congresses.

Dawson was also leader of the African-American "submachine" within the Cook County Democratic Organization. In the predominantly African-American wards, Dawson was able to act as his own political boss, handing out patronage and punishing rivals just as leaders of the larger machine, such as Richard J. Daley, did. However, Dawson's machine had to continually support the regular machine in order to retain its own clout.

President John F. Kennedy offered Dawson the position of United States Postmaster General as a reward for his work on Kennedy's 1960 election campaign. Dawson declined as he believed that he could accomplish more in the House.

Dawson died of pneumonia in Chicago on November 9, 1970.[4] He was cremated, and his ashes were placed in the columbarium in the Griffin Funeral Home in Chicago.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Christopher Manning, William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership (2009)
  2. Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, pp. 12-13 Accessed 10 Mar 2008
  3. David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 54-57, 78, 80, 174-88.
  4. "U. S. House Vet Dawson Dies at 84". Chicago Tribune. November 10, 1970. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1970/11/10/page/24/article/u-s-house-vet-dawson-dies-at-84. 

References[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Manning, Christopher. William L. Dawson and the Limits of Black Electoral Leadership. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009
  • ”William Levi Dawson”, in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007, Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Arthur W. Mitchell
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Ralph H. Metcalfe

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