At 40 years old, the Congressional Black Caucus is larger, stronger and no less committed to the cause of justice and equality as it was at its birth, Black lawmakers said in recognition of the group’s anniversary in March of 1971.
A daylong symposium will be held at Howard University Apr. 4 that will feature panels examining the four decades of the CBC activities.
“Throughout our 40-year history, the Congressional Black Caucus has worked tirelessly to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, color or creed have the chance to pursue and achieve the American dream,” Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II, (D-Mo.), said in a statement. “The continuously strives to be a voice for the voiceless, continually earning the moniker ‘the conscience of the Congress.’”
In 1969, Congressman Charles Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.) planted the seed that eventually grew into the Black Caucus when he proposed forming the Democratic Select Committee. In 1971, during the 92nd Congress, that committee became the caucus.
Founding members included Reps. Shirley Chisholm (N.Y.), William L. Clay (Mo.), George W. Collins (Ill.), John Conyers (Mich.), Ronald Dellums (Calif.), Charles Diggs (Mich.), Augustus F. Hawkins (Calif.), Ralph Metcalfe (Ill.), Parren Mitchell (Md.), Robert Nix (Pa.), Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), Louis Stokes (Ohio), and non-voting Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D.C.). Since then, the caucus has grown to 42 members but still includes founding fathers Rangel, of New York and Conyers, of Michigan, both Democrats.
“Not only have we grown in number, but our members have maintained key leadership positions,” Cleaver said. “In the 112th Congress, Caucus member Jim Clyburn serves as the Assistant Democratic Leader. In addition, John Conyers, Elijah Cummings, Bennie G. Thompson, and Eddie Bernice Johnson are the Ranking Members on the House Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, Homeland Security, Science, Space, and Technology Committees, respectively.”
One former member, Barack Obama, even became America’s first Black president. Despite his rise, the caucus said it has demonstrated a willingness to “speak truth to power” and advocate on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. Most recently, the group opposed Obama’s tax compromise with Republicans.
In 1970, Black lawmakers—then banded together under the Democratic Select Committee—had requested a meeting with President Richard Nixon to issue a set of policy recommendations. They were denied. In response, the newly formed caucus boycotted Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union Address. By March, the president agreed to see them.
On Capitol Hill, the caucus had a hand in significant legislation, including the 1982 extension of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years; President Ronald Reagan’s enactment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in 1983; the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which called for sanctions against South Africa; and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which made registration standardized and more accessible, particularly for minority and low-income voters; and many more.
The group’s advocacy is needed more than ever before, said Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, as he said the nation faces an ailing jobs market and crippled health and education systems.
“The Congressional Black Caucus will not compromise when it comes to the welfare of our constituents and communities,” he said in a statement. “Our top priority remains getting Americans back to work by creating economic opportunity for all, not cutting critical programs that impact the welfare of our most vulnerable communities.”
“Some still ask if the Congressional Black Caucus is needed,” Cleaver said. “To that I simply say there is still more work to be done to make the promise of this great nation, the practice. We look forward to continuing to serve our communities and the United States of America until that day comes.”