When the 13 black Members of Congress formed the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, they spent a lot of time explaining what they weren’t doing.
They weren’t organizing to support a black candidate for president in 1972, as the Democratic establishment feared, or trying to supplant civil rights activists, as some black leaders suspected. This wasn’t a power grab, they had to tell wary black ministers, white Democrats, labor leaders and others, again and again.
Further complicating its establishment, the CBC also formed at a time when the civil rights movement was splitting between traditional followers of nonviolence and more militant activists.
“We assured these various organizations that we were not there to usurp their power but enhance it by cooperation,” recalls former Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr. (D-Mo.), one of the organization’s founders. “And that’s what we did.”
The CBC became a voice for black America in Washington, D.C., a group that commanded the attention and authority that no single member could claim on his own. With a primary mission of eradicating racial discrimination, the caucus advocated from a position of power where no other activist, minister or journalist could — from the halls of Congress.
At the time of the CBC’s formation, huge swaths of the country lacked a black Member of Congress. So in its early years, the CBC members believed they represented not only the constituents who had elected them, but also blacks all over America.
Still, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), another of the founding members, remembers that in some ways, forming a blacks-only group was counterintuitive: “How do you explain that here you are the most august, powerful body in the free world, and you want to separate yourself from that group to become a black group when almost all of us were at that age that we were fighting in the civil rights movement to integrate?”
In 1971, two events solidified the CBC’s stature. The first came when CBC members requested a meeting with President Richard Nixon. Nixon rejected the request, and a standoff ensued — one that the president would come to regret.
Rep. Bill Cassidy has his blood drawn by Alesha Barbour during a free hepatitis screening in the Rayburn House Office Building hosted by the Congressional Viral Hepatitis Caucus to recognize "National Viral Hepatitis Testing Day."
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