Dawson was the 3rd African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, the 3rd from Chicago.
Dawson described himself as a "congressman first and a Negro second,"
Levi Dawson was born in Albany, Georgia, on April 26, 1886. Upon graduating from
Albany Normal School in 1905, Dawson worked his way through Fisk
University in Nashville, Tennessee, as a porter and a waiter.
graduated in 1909, and in 1912 moved to Chicago and enlisted in the U.S. Army during
World War I. In 1917 he became a first lieutenant.
After returning to
Chicago, he resumed classes at Northwestern and was admitted to the
Illinois bar in 1920.
In 1942, Dawson ran for Congress as a Democrat and won 53 % of the
vote beginning a congressional career that lasted 27 years.
his first 2 terms in office, Dawson was on the Coinage, Weights,
and Measures; Invalid Pensions; and Irrigation and Reclamation
committees. He also served on the Expenditures in the Executive
Departments Committee (renamed Government Operations in 1952) from the
78th through the 80th Congress (1943–1949) before ascending to
committee chair in 1949. Dawson held the post until 1970, with the exception of the 83rd Congress (1953–1955), when Republicans
controlled the House.
In 1960, John F.
Kennedy's narrow victory in the key state of Illinois was largely
dependent on the voters in Dawson's wards.
During his first term in the
House, Dawson was the only African American serving in Congress.
years later, a second black Representative, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,
of New York, joined Dawson.
challenged racial discrimination publicly, choosing instead to work
behind the scenes to pass legislation to assist his district and the
"How is it," he said,
"that after fighting all my life for the rights of my people, I
suddenly awaken in the September of life to find myself vilified and
abused, and those who know me well and what I have stood for are
accusing me of being against civil rights."
Dawson defended his approach to politics while maligning
some of his outspoken black colleagues, noting, "I use speeches only as
the artisan does his stone, to build something. I don't talk just to
Dawson introduced a major civil rights bill on the House Floor in 1963.
Dawson's bill echoed proposals
then being considered in Congress and eventually rolled into the 1964
Civil Rights Act: voting rights, ending discrimination in public
accommodations, the creation of a Commission on Equal Employment
Opportunity, and the prohibition of discrimination in federally funded
"There is a crisis in America that is now a national
danger," he pronounced, carefully enunciating his petition on behalf of
the "citizens of the First Congressional District of Illinois.… Unless
something is done about it, and it must be done soon, this crisis will
become a national calamity."
his tenure in the House, Dawson sought better appointments for blacks
in the federal civil service and judiciary, supported southern voter
registration drives, and blocked congressional efforts to undermine the
integration of public schools in Washington, DC. He also opposed poll
taxes and legislation he thought placed an excessive tax burden on
In 1951, Dawson played an integral role in
ensuring that the Universal Military Training Act furthered the
desegregation of the armed forces initiated in 1948; he helped defeat
the Winstead Amendment, which would have permitted military personnel to
choose whether they wanted to serve in white or black units.
Dawson spoke on the House floor to urge his
colleagues to end racial discrimination in the military, mentioning
that an injury he sustained during World War I would not have become a
lifelong affliction had he been allowed access to a white hospital."