Barbara Lee (CA-9), Chairwoman
Maxine Waters (CA-35), senior member
Charles Rangel (NY-15), co-founding member
John Conyers (MI-14), co-founding member
*** Legends ***
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
“They are still the Conscience of the U. S. Congress”
This noble group of Black legislators appears to be under siege and it is fitting that their work on behalf of the voiceless, disenfranchished and the poor be showcased. Therefore, it is fitting to re-run ‘the Congressional Black Caucus’ in the “Legends” column.
Amidst the 112th Congress in 2010, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) now has 42 members, consisting of one senator and 41 representatives, who work together and are described as “the conscience of the Congress.” As a body, their authority derives from each member’s individual standing as an elected official, and together, they work as a moral force to affect public policy on behalf of their constituents and those that have historically been voiceless, downtrodden and forgotten.
In the recent past, new members have arrived and one distinguished member–former Senator Barack Obama–is now the President of the United States. Marcia Fudge (OH-11) and Andre Carson (IN-7) have replaced two recently deceased members. Another distant departure was replaced by Laura Richardson (CA-37). The others include Donna Edwards (MD-4); Hank Johnson (GA-4); Donna Christensen (D-USVI); Yvette Clarke (NY-11) and the lone senator, Roland Burris (D-IL). Barbara Lee (CA-9) is the new chairwoman.
When Hiram R. Revels–the first Black U.S. Senator–got together in 1870 with the other six Black representatives (Benjamin Turner, Robert DeLarge, Josiah Walls, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey and Robert Elliot), they were setting the tone for the founding of CBC a hundred years later. They laid the groundwork for what exists today as the CBC that moves Congress to act on behalf, not only of the rich and the powerful, but also on behalf of the despised and the rejected–the biblical least of these.
The idea for the CBC began taking shape around 1969 when African Americans in the 77th Congress formed the Democratic Select Committee. A couple of years later, it was renamed and the “Congressional Black Caucus” was born. There were 13 founding members, all members of the House of Representatives. Up to that time, there was only one Black U.S. Senator throughout the 20th century, a hundred years since the Reconstruction Era.
The founding members were Shirley Chisholm, William Clay, George Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs Jr., Augustus Hawkins, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell, Robert Nix, Charles Rangel, Louis Stokes and Walter Fauntroy. They were all members of the Democratic Party. Only three Black members of the Republican Party have been elected to Congress since the CBC was founded: Senator Edward Brooke, Representatives Gary Franks and J.C. Watts; and they reportedly were not members of the Caucus. The only Black woman in U.S. history to be elected to the Senate was Carol Moseley Braun at the end of the 20th century. She was a member of CBC.
The CBC endured many bumps and received many bruises along the way. When the founding members met with the President back in 1971, they presented him with list of 60 recommendations for governmental action on domestic and foreign issues. They did not get a favorable response. However, that “executive snub” did produce some unintended consequences, because it apparently strengthened their resolve to work together, and today, the original 13 have more than tripled.
Speaking with a single voice, the CBC provides political influence and visibility far beyond each member’s individual reach thereby enhancing the quality of life and the course of events pertinent to African Americans, their constituents and others of similar experience in the nation. Some of the aims and objectives of the Caucus include focusing on economic security, employment and equal justice for all; closing the achievement and opportunity gaps in education; assuring quality health care for every American; and increasing equity in foreign policy.
The Caucus is officially non-partisan and tends to function as a lobbying group mostly with the Democratic Party. Eddie Bernice Johnson, one of the members, described CBC this way, “The CBC is one of the world’s most esteemed bodies, with a history of positive activism unparalleled in our nation’s history. Whether the issue is popular or unpopular, simple or complex, the CBC has fought to protect the fundamentals of democracy.” The members work closely and incessantly as friends and as a family for freedom fighters throughout the developing world.
The CBC members also made their marks by staking out positions that set them apart as individuals. Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and the first Black woman to make a serious bid for the presidency of the U.S. Christensen is the first female doctor and the first delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Augustus Hawkins was the first Black congressman to be elected from California and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was the first congresswoman. Many of their CBC colleagues were also the first Black legislators from their respective states/districts including Barbara Jordan, the first Black member of Congress from Texas. She also made history during the hearings about impeaching former President Richard Nixon when she said, “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the U.S. will not reach to offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th century paper shredder.” And she was the first Black woman to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, doing it twice in 1976 and 1992.
In 1989, John Conyers, who many consider “the dean” of the Black Congressional Representatives, first introduced a bill, H.R. 40, “The Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African American Act.” It got nowhere however, he has stated, “I have re-introduced H.R. 40 in every Congress since 1989, and will continue to do so until it’s passed into law. And lately, there have been a dramatic increase in supporters of the bill among the Members of Congress. The CBC fully supports H.R. 40.”
As a member of the CBC, Mervyn Dymally was the first foreign-born Black person to be elected to Congress. And recently, Keith Ellison was the first Black representative from Minnesota to be elected to Congress. And because he is also a Muslim, he chose to take the oath of office by placing his hand on the Holy Qur’an (the Muslim book of scriptures) instead of the Holy Bible, the book that has been traditionally used. He, too, is a member of the CBC.
The issues the Caucus confronts as a body are as diverse as those that the members faced as individual legislators, on both the national and the international fronts. The CBC was very concerned about insuring that democracy was working, as it was meant to, after the 2000 fiasco in Florida. So that when the 2004 election was looming ahead, some of the members announced efforts to invite the United Nations (UN) to monitor the then coming presidential election. They wanted an independent monitor present, and by inviting the UN, it would have been to reaffirm the right to vote, and have those votes counted in free and fair elections in the U.S., the cornerstone of democracy and representative government.
The CBC was also present at the White House for the re-signing of the Voting Rights Acts, and it prompted Maxine Waters to say, “American democracy cannot endure without the protections guaranteed under the Voting Rights Act (VRA).” And Melvin Watt, a previous chairman, said, “I applaud my colleagues in both the House and Senate for passing the VRA, which will extend the expiring provisions for another 25 years.”
After Hurricane Katrina devastated region in the South, the CBC introduced H.R. 4197, the Hurricane Katrina Recovery, Reclamation, Restoration, Reconstruction and Reunion Act to address the needs of survivors in a number of different areas. That measure included provisions to address the health, education, housing and community rebuilding, and other areas of needs for the victims.
Other issues the CBC tackled include assistance to business owners, restoration of cuts in Section 8 subsidies, unequal treatment and racial disparities in health care, outsourcing American jobs to non-union foreign workers, tax reform, crime prevention, environment quality, the dominance of children on welfare, AIDS and civil rights in general.
In foreign policy arena, the CBC closely monitors relations between U.S. and Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. From its founding, the CBC realized that Black America had a stake and a role to play in U.S. policy toward Africa and the Caribbean. Diggs had laid some of the groundwork for the CBC’s future role, particularly in Africa; his views were highly regarded in Congress and throughout Africa.
In 1976, during one of the CBC’s annual weekends of glamour and glitter in the nation’s capital, CBC members Diggs and Andrew Young convened a meeting of 30 leaders of national Black organizations to challenge the U.S. official policy in Rhodesia. After two days, a policy paper was produced entitled “the Afro-American Manifesto on Southern Africa” calling for democracy in Rhodesia, South Africa and Namibia. Though unofficial, it was adopted and out of that experiment came the idea of establishing an African American foreign policy advocacy organization. Thus TransAfrica was founded.
The CBC along with TransAfrica lobbied vigorously–even against a presidential veto–to get sanctions in place against South Africa, a move which hastened the fall of that apartheid regime and led to the eventual release of Nelson Mandela from prison. The Caucus was, and still is, just as relentless in its fight for human and civil rights, democracy and voting rights, freedom and justice for all disenfranchised Black people in the developing countries including Sudan, Haiti, Cuba and other countries in similar situations.
During another one of the Caucus conventions in the capital, six Cuban legislators were invited. The meeting signaled in a turning point in relations between the U.S. and the Cuban legislative body. That started continuous open dialog that eventually resulted in an offer from President Fidel Castro granting up to 500 scholarships annually to young Americans to study medicine free-of-charge in Cuba. Members of the CBC then visited Cuba and while there they sought ways to normalize U.S. relations with that country.
Though the CBC, as an organization, is not officially involved with the conflict in Iraq, it is important to mention that one of its members, Barbara Lee, was the only member of Congress–the House and the Senate–who did not vote in the affirmative to give blanket authorization to the President to conduct a war on terror that eventually evolved into the Invasion of Iraq. Many in Congress have since re-thought their vote and have come to the same conclusion that Lee had reached quite sometime ago.
The CBC has also been able to fulfill some of its other visions and goals through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), a non-profit, public policy research and educational entity which was established in 1976. The CBCF complements the work of the CBC by serving as a policy-oriented catalyst that educates future leaders and promotes collaboration among legislators, minority-focused organizational, business and labor leaders, to effect positive changes in the African American communities across the nation. To implement and sustain the foundation’s efforts and programs, CBCF and CBC spouses engage in many fundraising events, including an annual legislative conference that brings out the brightest and the best in Black America to participate and support the foundation.