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.
The CBC boycotted Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union address and began a PR campaign that eventually drew the attention of mainstream media. CBC members would routinely go to the House floor to review the president’s schedule — meetings with veterans groups and civic organizations, cocktail parties and dinners — noting that he had yet to find time to meet with the CBC.
The snub became an embarrassment to Nixon, who ultimately invited the CBC to the White House. There, the group presented him with a report on the state of black America that included 60 recommendations. Although the CBC was dissatisfied with Nixon’s response to the report, the meeting helped legitimize the caucus.
The second defining event was the CBC’s first annual dinner. Ofield Dukes, a public relations consultant who had once handled media relations for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, helped organize the dinner. With its $100-a-plate price tag, the event seemed exorbitant, and organizers wondered whether it would be a flop. Despite the high ticket price, the dinner, held at the Sheraton Park Hotel, sold out and was almost shut down by fire marshals because the overflow crowd numbered 2,700.
Entertainers included Nancy Wilson and Dick Gregory. Actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis spoke, and his words underscored the CBC’s belief that black America’s interests were best served by a collective voice in Washington — and not by a single, charismatic spokesman.
“It’s not the man, it’s the plan,” Davis told the crowd. “It’s not the rap, it’s the map.”
The crowd went wild.
“It was electrifying,” says Dukes, who is still a busy PR man in Washington and teaches courses at Howard University. “People just stood up and cheered as if this was a new day for black America. That was the spiritual and political springboard for the Congressional Black Caucus.”
Growth and a Rural Rising
The CBC’s biggest growth spurt came after the 1990 census, when courts ordered the creation of a number of new districts where minority voters made up the majority. The 1992 elections brought 17 black freshmen to Congress.
The new blood did much to diversify the caucus. Once dominated by legislators from major cities and northern districts, the CBC now included Representatives from rural and suburban districts as well as from the South. By 1992, nearly half of its members were women, and many had come of political age in the post-civil-rights era. Unlike their older colleagues, they were too young to have marched in the protests of the 1950s and ’60s.
The CBC was changing.
One of the new Members would ultimately rise to become the highest-ranking African-American in Congress. Rep. James Clyburn was elected Majority Whip in 2006. The South Carolina Democrat says the influx of Southerners and those from rural areas forced the CBC to change its ways. For example, the caucus always presents an alternative federal budget that reflects its priorities, and for years, he says, the group would balance its budget by eliminating expensive farm subsidies.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.