Trailblazing Ex-Rep. Hawkins Dies at 100

Posted November 13, 2007 at 6:53pm

Former Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D), the first black Congressman from California and an important instrument in the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus, died on Saturday.

Hawkins died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., of symptoms related to old age. He was 100 — the oldest living ex-Member of Congress at the time of his death. [IMGCAP(1)]

Hawkins’ political career began in the state Legislature during the Depression in 1934, and he was elected to the House in 1962. Between the Legislature and Congress, Hawkins represented south Los Angeles for more than a half-century. He also was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1940, 1944 and 1960 and was a presidential elector in the 1944 election.

“Gus is no longer with us, but his tremendous public policy accomplishments and his contributions to the body politic have been recorded in history,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who holds Hawkins’ former seat. “Gus was my friend and mentor, and I am privileged to hold the Congressional seat that he vacated when he retired.”

Waters referred to Hawkins as “the author of some of the most significant legislation ever passed in the House … particularly in the areas of education and labor. He cared about poor and working people.”

Among his many accomplishments, Hawkins sponsored the equal employment section of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He also spoke out against police as “abusive and arrogant” as the Watts section of Los Angeles burned during the 1965 riots.

Hawkins was able to raise substantial funds to fight poverty following the riots, and in 1971, he helped create the CBC and was the dean of the caucus when he retired from Congress in 1990.

Hawkins also co-wrote, with then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978, which was designed to reduce unemployment and inflation.

In all, he authored more than 300 state and federal laws. He also succeeded in restoring honorable discharges to the 170 black soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment who had been falsely accused of a public disturbance in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, and removed from the Army.

“Lives like the one Congressman Hawkins led will never be duplicated again,” said Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “My generation is forever indebted to trailblazers like Congressman Hawkins. Where barriers existed, he tore them down. When history was made, he was at the forefront. I extend my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of a true American hero.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), first vice chairwoman of the CBC, reminisced about her run-in with Hawkins a few years ago in the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building. “Despite his advanced years he was still at it, lobbying for education and pushing us as lawmakers to do a better job for young people. He had a certain quiet strength that conveyed his determination to get the job done,” she said.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said Hawkins was “just legendary, a real hero.” Davis pointed out that Hawkins was a hero specifically for black Americans who never knew him, yet still always could look up to.

Memorial services, to be held in the Washington, D.C., area are pending.