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At 40, the CBC Marks a Milestone

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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?”

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.

“Which is a good urban thing to do — not so good for rural,” Clyburn says. “I think the caucus is now much more reflective in its deeds as well as words of the country as a whole than it was before.”   

By the 1990s, the CBC could count some legislative victories, including the adoption of a federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. The CBC also championed the end of apartheid, introducing legislation to combat it 13 years before Congress finally adopted a trade embargo against South Africa in 1986.

“Many of us went to South Africa, encouraging people there to participate in the election — to become unified,” says Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was among the Southerners who came to Congress in the 1980s.

Tangible accomplishments aside, the caucus was increasingly playing a symbolic role that many lawmakers describe as the “conscience of the Congress.” Although its alternative budgets were largely ignored and many of its bills stalled, the CBC always reminded other Members of how their actions might affect, in the parlance of the church, “the least among them.”

The organization was also developing serious clout within the Democratic Party: Its blessing became a requirement for Democrats seeking leadership positions. “I don’t know that you’d want to win a position without their support,” says Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. “You not only need them in terms of numbers, but you need the intellect, the perspective, the experience they bring to the discussion.”

Scandal and a New President

By 2010, however, the caucus found its relationship with Democratic leaders strained after a series of ethics scandals involving CBC members. Eight of them, including veterans such as Rangel and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), had come under scrutiny by the newly created Office of Congressional Ethics.

The Ethics Committee eventually found Rangel had broken 11 ethics rules, including failing to pay taxes on some income. The debacle cost him his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and ended with his censure on the House floor.

Meanwhile, the CBC’s foundation was also making the wrong kind of news. CBC member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) had doled out foundation scholarships to her grandchildren and the children of a top staffer.

Some CBC members complained that black Members were more likely to be called out for their missteps than their white counterparts were.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the current CBC chairman, says he doesn’t see race as a motivating factor, but many black voters do. Still, the Missouri Democrat insists that the number of CBC members with ethical woes is no reflection on the organization.

“There are very few of us who get ethics charges out of 43, but because we are a caucus and we all are the same color, it draws attention,” he says. “Far more white folk have been ethically challenged in the last 10 years than black.”

Even as some caucus members saw the vestiges of racism in the ethics charges, the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 was a cause for celebration of how far African-American political leadership had come. Obama had belonged to the organization during his Senate tenure, and his ascension to the highest office was a feat many of the original 13 members might scarcely have dreamed about.

But the relationship between the president and his alma mater hasn’t always been smooth. Much of the friction relates to the economic climate, which pits the White House’s deficit-trimming zeal against CBC members who say their constituents have been hardest hit by high unemployment rates and the housing downturn.

The CBC criticized the White House’s most recent budget, decrying cuts to a variety of programs, from home-heating assistance to higher education. More generally, some CBC members have long felt that the Obama White House simply hasn’t welcomed them.

Cleaver downplays the strife, saying the CBC’s role is to agitate — even against a black president. “There has not been one president where they have been sworn in and we have said, ‘Problem solved,’” Cleaver says. “So we have some differences with the president. He understands that. In many ways he appreciates that opposition to some of his proposals, and we think that is healthy.”

And as overt discrimination in public life has diminished, the Congressional Black Caucus has more fully embraced its mission of advocating on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. Blacks, after all, make up a disproportionate percentage of those living below the poverty level.

“It’s impossible to single out black people in trying to take care of them,” Rangel says. “Whether you’re talking about workman’s compensation, whether you’re talking about health care ... you can’t have a black bill. We have done more to ease the economic pain of non-black folks than probably any other group down here.”

As the group marks its 40th anniversary, some of its members hope their successes will someday render the CBC obsolete. “If we are around 40 years from today,” Cleaver says, “then we have failed miserably.” 

Andrew Satter contributed to this report.

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