Twelve men and one woman made up the first Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. Back then, it was a small club, and yet the message that it sent to the rest of the country was huge: These 13 legislators, standing on the steps of the Capitol or in ornate hearing rooms, had claimed their rightful place in Washington, D.C.
Congress would never look the same.
Since its founding, the CBC has more than tripled in size to 43 members. It has become one of the most powerful forces in Democratic politics in the House and has seen one of its own elected president. When Democrats took the majority in 2006, CBC members held five committee chairmanships and the position of Majority Whip, the third-most-powerful position in the House.
In its four decades, the CBC has grown from a small organization to a sprawling institution with a foundation and a political action committee. Success has come with baggage, though, and many members of the modern CBC have faced ethics scandals that have shaken the organization and highlighted racial fault lines in Congress.
Only two of the original 13 members are still serving, Reps. John Conyers and Charlie Rangel. Some have died, but their names still loom large: Shirley Chisholm, Charlie Diggs, Parren Mitchell. See more on the story of the CBC in Roll Call's multimedia package.
Video Part 1 — Doubts and Triumphs
Video Part 2: Conscience and Controversy
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?”