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A centenarian of immense popularity, Hawkins was a political icon and a legislative pioneer who paved the way in the United States Congress and the California State Assembly for the current generation of legislators.
Augustus F. Hawkins, who served in the California state assembly and was the first African American congressman from California, died over the weekend at a hospital in suburban Maryland of complications related to old age. Hawkins, the oldest living former member of Congress, celebrated his 100th birthday last August 31.
Augustus “Gus” Freeman Hawkins was born to Nyanza and Hattie Hawkins in Shreveport, Louisiana. To escape the constant threat of racism and pursue greater educational opportunities, the Hawkins family relocated to Los Angeles in 1918. Hawkins attended Jefferson High School, graduating in 1926, and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics at UCLA in 1931 with a degree in economics. Hawkins completed his graduate study at USC in 1932.
“Gus” was diminutive in physical stature and soft-spoken, but his achievements, particularly in progressive and civil rights legislation, far over-shadowed his physical being. As New Deal Democrat, Hawkins first became politically involved in writer Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” (EPIC). He also campaigned for Sinclair’s unsuccessful bid for governor of California in 1934 and in the presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hawkins was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1940, 1944 and 1960 and a Presidential Elector in the 1944. In 1934, he and a small group of Black Democrats organized to unseat Black Republican Frederick Madison Roberts-the first Black to serve in the California Assembly. Hawkins was elected to the California State Assembly (62nd District) in 1935.
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He authored over 100 laws in the areas of adult education, apprenticeship training, slum clearance; low cost housing; workmen’s compensation for domestics; disability insurance; pensions for senior citizens; and childcare centers; He was responsible for The Fair Employment Practice Act of 1959; the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962; and The Fair Housing Act of 1963. He served as Chairman of the Rules, Public Utilities, Labor and Capital, Unemployment Committees and the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization. Hawkins served in the Assembly until 1962, when with the support of President John F. Kennedy, he was elected to the United States Congress from the 21st District (1963-75) and later the newly-formed 29th District (1975-91). He was the first African American to serve in that national body West of the Mississippi River.
Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally considers Hawkins his political mentor, who was about to leave Sacramento for Washington D.C. when Dymally was first elected to the assembly in1962. Dymally said, “Had it not been for Gus, I would not be in politics today. He was my friend and my mentor. History would be kind to Congressman Augustus Hawkins; he was a man of great humility but historic accomplishments. In the closing days of the legislative session in August, he was honored on his 100th birthday.”
Beginning his Congressional tenure in the Eighty-Eighth Congress, the scope of Congressman Hawkins’s legislation, such as labor, employment, education, urban redevelopment and transportation, is broad. Hawkins co-authored the Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (October 1978). In the wake of unemployment and inflation in the early 70s, the goal of Humphrey-Hawkins was full employment, growth in production, price stability and balance of trade and budget. In this way, explicit requirements and goals were set for the federal government to attain.
Hawkins authored Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1990) establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Provisions of Title VII required the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board to give Congressional testimony on the state of the economy. An additional provision was the Job Training Partnership Act establishing programs preparing youth and adults to overcome barriers to employment through job training and other services. The goal was to increase employment, earnings, education and occupational skills. Ultimately, the quality of the workforce would be improved along with the quality of life.
Congressman Hawkins authored The Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965. This was an extensive statute funding primary and secondary education. As mandated in the Act, the funds were authorized for educators’ professional development, instructional materials, and resources to support educational programs, and parental involvement promotion. The Act was originally authorized through 1970, however the government has reauthorized the Act every five years since its enactment. Title I (“Title One”) also known as “No Child Left Behind” of the Act was a set of programs set up by the Department of Education to distribute funding to schools and school districts with a high percentage of students from low-income families. In 1988, it was reauthorized as the Hawkins-Stafford Amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The major change was allowing Title I funds to be used for “school wide” programs in schools where at least 75 percent of the students were at or below the poverty level. The 1988 Bi-lingual Education Act is part of Title I. Hawkins was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in January 4, 1969, which was then known as the Democratic Select Committee.
During his Congressional tenure, he chaired the Committees of Health, Education and Labor, Administration, the Committee on the Library and the Committee on Printing. In 1970, Hawkins led a campaign to reopen the investigation into the Brownsville Raid. 170 Black soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment had been falsely accused of a public disturbance in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906 and removed from the Army. Then President Richard Nixon endorsed the findings of the reinvestigation and honorable discharge status was restored to the men on September 28, 1972. Hawkins was also one of the original members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1976, Hawkins was honored by the Brotherhood Crusade as a pioneer of Black political leadership. Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., then the executive director of the Brotherhood Crusade, remembered Hawkins as a scholar and a hard worker who preferred to work behind the scenes, and a formidable infighter. Bakewell said, “He was a man of great integrity who had the courage and power to stand by his convictions. A gentle man, but a tough fighter for his people. We trust that for all the good he has done, he is now in a better place. Gus will be remembered affectionately for his kindness, his gentle demeanor and his unwavering steadfast character.”
In 1986, Congressman Hawkins brought together African American educators and organizational leaders to form the National Council on Educating Black Children. The mission of NCEBC is to improve the quality of education for African American youth based on the correlates found in the More Effective Schools Research of noted African American educator Ron Edmonds. Hawkins served in Congress until 1991 and retired to Washington D.C. Last August 31, former Congressman Hawkins not only became the oldest living African American statesman, but the oldest living member of Congress.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who succeeded Hawkins in the Congress, reflected kindly about the man and referred to herself as the beneficiary of both his work and his vision. She issued the following statement: “It is with a heavy heart and deep sadness that I join with the family of the Honorable Augustus Hawkins in morning his passing. Gus is no longer with us, but his tremendous public policy accomplishments and his contributions to the body politic have been recorded in history. Gus was my friend and mentor, and I am privileged to hold the Congressional seat that he vacated when he retired.”
Congresswoman Diane Watson issued this statement about the passing of Hawkins: “Emulated by leaders past and present, Gus Hawkins has left us with a sterling legacy that was built on the politics of inclusion.”
Councilman Bernard Parks issued the following statement: “It is with great sorrow that I and my family have received the news of the passing of former Assembly-member and Congress-member Augustus F. Hawkins. Congressmember Hawkins was a personal friend and a role model to several generations of public servants. He was a “one of a kind” national leader!”
Augustus Hawkins’s philosophy of service and leadership to the State of California and the nations is perhaps best said in his own words: “The leadership belongs not to the loudest, not to those who beat the drums or blow the trumpets, but to those who day in and day out, in all seasons, work for the practical realization of a better world—those who have the stamina to persist and to remain dedicated. To those belongs the leadership.”