Chaplain Barry Black stood in front of a packed auditorium Tuesday and discussed one of the two times he was late to open the Senate because of D.C. traffic.
Former Sen. William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts had been the freshman Democrat delegated that day to preside over the chamber and gavel Black in. Though Black said he is loathe to pick favorites among lawmakers and parishioners, Cowan is one because on that morning, he offered the Senate prayer in the chaplain’s place.
“Fortunately, No. 1, he’s African-American. No. 2 he has a bald head, and No. 3 he wears bow ties,” Black joked with a mostly African-American crowd at the Library of Congress, there for a Black History Month panel organized by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. Black noted that several people could and had confused him with Cowan, who is one of only nine African-Americans to ever serve in the Senate.
Black’s anecdote was a joke, but in telling it, he shined light on an unfunny truth: Minority politicians are still the outlier in the Senate and its history. That Scott could get four other black senators on stage with him Tuesday — Roland Burris and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Cowan, and current Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. — meant the audience there could hear from more than half of all black senators to ever serve.
The five current and former lawmakers talked briefly about their childhoods, the challenges they faced in office and the few issues they all believe are important for Congress to address. There were some poignant moments, like when Scott talked about his mother raising him and his brother, who is a sergeant major in the U.S. Army. Or when Booker focused on Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights heroes.
But there also were several exchanges that underscored how random and diverse this crew of living black senators is.
“I hope my friend here is successful in his campaign, because I love that the black experience is reflected on the other side of the aisle,” Cowan said of Scott. “That’s not to say we agree on a lot,” he continued, moments after teasing the Republican about the “holy trinity” being Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
“Tim was the first person who greeted me on the floor when I was sworn into the Senate,” Cowan said.
Burris talked extensively about his personal biography, at times seeming to lose even the crowd on stage, but swore again that he had done nothing illegal to get appointed to the Senate by now-incarcerated, disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“I will tell you now that I have not done anything wrong, but my appointment was controversial,” said Burris, whose bright red tie on a snowy day meant “it’s still winter,” according to the neck-tie focused Black.
And when Scott spoke of nearly failing out of high school, Moseley Braun laughed so hard the entire panel needed a moment to compose itself before the South Carolina Republican could continue with his story.
“I think I’m the only United States Senator to fail civics,” Scott said, to Moseley Braun’s uproarious laughs. He also noted that he failed geography and “successfully failed” both Spanish and English.
Despite the fact that some of these senators and former senators seemed to have little in common besides the color of their skin, they all seemed hopeful that their presence on stage and the large crowd of young people would be just a precursor to a future generation of more civically engaged black Americans.
Chaplain Black, who has gained recent fame for his pointed prayers to open the Senate session, delivered a particularly moving prayer before moderating the panel, one that underscored the accomplishments of those on stage but subtly warned of all the work ahead.
“Continue oh God to challenge us when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams come true simply because we have dreamed too little and when we have arrived safely because we have sailed too close to the shore,” Black said.