“The Conscience of the Congress” Fifty Years & Going Strong

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Congressional Black Caucus founders, 1971. From left to right, back row: Parren J. Mitchell (MD), Charles B. Rangel (NY), William L. Clay, Sr. (MO), Ronald V. Dellums (CA), George W. Collins (IL), Louis Stokes (OH), Ralph H. Metcalfe (IL), John Conyers, Jr. (MI), and Walter E. Fauntroy (D.C.). Left to right, front row: Robert N.C. Nix, Sr. (PA), Charles C. Diggs, Jr. (MI), Shirley A. Chisholm (NY), and Augustus F. Hawkins (CA)

The HistoryMakers

Fifty years ago, on January 4, 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was officially formed by thirteen black members of the 92nd U.S. Congress. This was a historic moment in U.S. Congressional history; history that is actually housed in the Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Library. The CBC has, of course, changed since 1971 and now has fifty-nine African American members, with a notable increase in the number of women, including the record twenty-six who joined Congress this year, as well as the historic election of Reverend Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris, who holds the powerful tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate.

But, in the past, African Americans, when elected to office, have not always been able to exercise considerable power. For example, “by 1877 about 2,000 black men had won local, state, and federal offices in the former Confederate states… [but] black officeholders never achieved significant power within the GOP.”[1] It would be almost a century before organizing occurred on a state level with the Ohio and Illinois Legislative Black Caucuses being formed in 1967 and 1968, but on a national level, “the prevalence of informal organizations [such as caucuses] in the contemporary Congress is largely a post-1970 phenomenon.”[2]

African Americans serving in the U.S. Congress in 1877, left to right: South Carolina Representatives Robert Smalls, Joseph Rainey, and Richard Cain, and Mississippi Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce

The precursor to the Congressional Black Caucus, the Democratic Select Committee (DSC), was formed in January of 1968 after the U.S. House of Representatives gained three more African Americans, bringing the total to nine. Elected in that cycle was U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes (1925 – 2015), the first African American member of Congress from Ohio, who stated in his interview for The HistoryMakers: “We came in the same vein in which we had been in in the Civil Rights Movement; outspoken, and demanding… we got attention from the media, but no power. We knew that if we were going to be able to accomplish something historically for black people, we needed… [to] form one unit… The original name… was the Select Democratic Committee [sic. Democratic Select Committee].”[3]

Left to right- Representatives Louis Stokes, William Clay Sr., and Shirley Chisholm, all elected in 1968

Then, with the 1970 election, the number of African American representatives rose from nine to a historic thirteen. This was with the help of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, founded by Dr. Kenneth B. Clark and Louis E. Martinin 1970 to support newly-elected Black officials who were moving from civil rights activism into governance… the Joint Center quickly evolved into America’s Black think tank.”[4] U.S. Congressman Augustus F. “Gus” Hawkins (1907 – 2007) in his interview further explained the CBC’s founding: “We came together and said, look, we have the same type of constituency, we have the same interest in basic issues such as jobs and health… and public service, we have the same interest in civil rights. Why not join together and pool resources and work as a group… We invited Ossie Davis, the playwright, to address us… and his famous slogan was ‘It is not the man. It’s the plan.’ And he figured that… nationally we always depend on one or two individuals. What we need to do… is to develop a plan containing all of the prominent issues and not worry about one or two individuals… So we developed the idea of all the black elected officials serving as a caucus.”[5] The newly formed CBC was more formal than the DSC, and as U.S. Congressman William Clay, Sr., CBC co-founder and author of Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress 1870-1991, explained: “[It] became a catalyst for blacks to unite all across this country.”[6] The CBC also may have influenced others to organize, as “in both the 1971-1976 and 1977-1982 periods, the number of caucuses created showed a fourfold growth… during the latter period (1977-1982), 67 unofficial groups were formed.”[7]

Left to right- Representatives George W. Collins, Ronald Dellums, Ralph Metcalfe, and Parren Mitchell, all elected in 1970

Public relations chief executive and political consultant Ofield Dukes (1932 – 2011) pointed out how the CBC was seen as controversial: “This was sort of a radical thing… And I convened a press conference for Bill Clay and Lou Stokes because it was during a period of StokelyCarmichael and the Black Power group. And… the white business executives, and white labor leaders were concerned whether this was a Black Power thing that the Caucus was segregating themselves off.”[8] Ramona Edelin, former CEO of the National Urban Coalition, added that because of this perceived controversy, right away “they were shunned by [President] Richard Nixon in a desire to meet with him, and one of the first things they did was… boycott his first State of the Union address. And that got enough attention… they finally did meet with him.”[9]

President Richard Nixon meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, March 25, 1971

In the last two years of the Nixon Administration, U.S. Congressman Stokes served as the CBC’s second chairman. He explained that during this time, “one of our concerns was the fact that in most of the congressional offices, there were no minority employees… we wanted to see more minorities being given a chance to work… where there’s real opportunity… to make meaningful, penetration into litigation or legislation that is pending before the Congress. And so we undertook that as one of our missions or goals.”[10] This helped lead to the establishment of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, officially formed in 1976 under the chairmanship of U.S. Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the first African American woman elected to Congress from California, who helped usher in female leadership within the Caucus as their first woman chair: “One of the things that I was pushing for was the foundation [Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.]. And with Barbara [Williams-Skinner] who, at that point, was the Executive Director, we sat down… and we put together the foundation, the wives [of CBC members] said why not have interns… and that worked out really well.”[11]

Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (left), chairman of the CBC, and Barbara Williams-Skinner (right), executive director of the CBC at the time of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s establishment

Over the years, the CBC had to evolve. U.S. Congressman Melvin L. Watt, the second African American elected to Congress from North Carolina, described changes the CBC saw when he was elected to the House in 1992: “I came into Congress with seventeen new minority African-American, members of Congress… it almost doubled the size [of the CBC]… So the Congressional Black Caucus became a much more powerful force in terms of numbers. Some people say… not as powerful in terms of direction because a lot of the minority representatives represent a different kind of constituency… pre-1992, all of the minority representatives were from large northern cities or large southern cities… And then all of a sudden you get rural representatives. Like Eva Clayton from Eastern North Carolina… or Sanford Bishop from Georgia… so it’s kind of harder to coalesce the Black Caucus behind all of the issues that it had historically been coalescing behind.”[12]

Left to right- Representatives Melvin Watt, Eva Clayton, and Sanford Bishop, three of seventeen African Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992

U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who served as chairman of the CBC from 1997 to 1999, reflected: “The Congressional Black Caucus is an important voice in the Congress of the United States, really speaking to the needs, aims, goals, concerns of African Americans all over this country. A lot of the work that we do is not oftentimes understood or known because much of the work you do there is in negotiation behind the sceneswe have taken the leadership on HIV and AIDS in this country… We took the lead on South Africa. We’re responsible for [former South African President] Nelson Mandela… getting his freedom and helping to dismantle apartheid. We’re in the leadership of talking about the imprisonment of young African Americans… We’re in the leadership of lower income housing. We’re fighting against some of these privatization policies with Social Security… We’re the ones who fight for the black colleges and universities to keep a place in the education system… our work is unending.”[13] Looking back, she added: “I have come to really respect the organizers of the Congressional Black Caucus… these guys are brilliant… They learned to navigate very difficult waters in a hostile environment early on, and they learned lessons that have held some of us in good stead by listening and watching and patterning ourselves after them.”[14]

Former South African President Nelson Mandela with members of the CBC, including U.S. Representative from Maryland Kweisi Mfume (right of Mandela), at an event at the Library of Congress, October 1994

Former CBC Chairman and U.S. Representative Karen Bass released a statement this past December, concluding the 49thyear of the CBC and looking ahead: “We began this Congress as the largest and most powerful Caucus in history, with 55 Members… Next year, CBC will celebrate 50 years as the ‘Conscience of the Congress.’ … [We] will be even larger and more powerful, with 59 Members… Under the leadership of Chair Joyce Beatty, the CBC will enjoy even greater opportunities to advance a Black agenda in the 117th Congress.”[15] After fifty years of essential advocating we must not forget the pioneers who started it all and organized so the work could continue. As Barbara Williams-Skinner said of the founders: “Every movement has to have people who are willing to take risks, people who see a vision. That’s what leadership is… It’s being able to capture it in your mind’s eye before it exists. And then doing your level best, using every resource you have, to make it come to pass. And that’s what they saw. They saw the Congressional Black Caucus.”[16]

(Left) U.S. Representative Karen Bass (CA), former CBC Chair (Right) U.S. Representative Joyce Beatty (OH), current CBC Chair

Library of Congress’ Gazette Features The HistoryMakers’ “Magnificent Collection

Front page of the Library of Congress’ Gazette, February 19, 2021

Last Friday, the Gazette — the Library of Congress’ (LOC) weekly staff newsletter — opened up with the main article centered on The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Highlighting interesting tidbits from several interviews, including baseball legend Hank Aaron, Maryland General Assemblywoman Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, civil rights leader Dorothy Height, and President Barack Obama, the article also focused on the processes the LOC undergoes as the permanent repository for The HistoryMakers’ video interviews. The collection is unique, as Mike Mashon, head of the LOC’s Moving Image Section, pointed out: “The HistoryMakers is important to us for many reasons, not the least of which is that, as our first born-digital collection, we created workflows for it that have been continually refined and are used every day in our section. But more than that, we treasure our collaboration with Julieanna Richardson and her team and are immensely proud to be the permanent archival home for this magnificent collection.”

The Library of Congress’ Packard Campus National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the permanent physical home of the The HistoryMakers archives, Culpepper, Virginia

Click the link below to learn more and read the full article! https://www.thehistorymakers.org/sites/default/files/07_Gazette_021921_web.pdf

Gabbin Hall Defeats the Confederacy

Gabbin Hall, James Madison University

Last July, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia voted to rename three buildings originally named for Confederate military leaders. After the Campus History Committee received extensive feedback from the campus and surrounding community, JMU recently released the new names of the three buildings, all after African Americans who have made significant contributions to the school. HistoryMakers and former JMU faculty members Drs. Joanne V. and Alexander Gabbin have been memorialized through Gabbin Hall–originally named Maury Hall, honoring a Confederate naval officer–for their more than thirty-five years at the school. Here, Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin was first hired as an associate professor of English where she helped form the Wintergreen Women Writers’ Collective before being promoted to a professor of English and director of the honors program. She subsequently organized the first academic conference on African American poetry and established the Furious Flower Poetry Center at JMU. Dr. Alexander Gabbin joined JMU initially as a Commonwealth Visiting Professor, but five years later was named an associate professor of accounting. Later promoted to a full professor of accounting, he also served as director of the School of Accounting and program director of the School of Professional Studies.

Joanne V. and Alexander Gabbin

The other newly named buildings include Darcus Johnson Hall, named for Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson, JMU’s first black graduate in 1970, and Harper Allen-Lee Hall, named for Doris Harper Allen and Robert Walker Lee, dedicated staff members in dining services and maintenance. Lee was likely the school’s first black employee, hired in 1909. Both Allen and Lee were also active members of the surrounding Harrisonburg and Rockingham County communities.[17]

[1] Reconstruction’s New Order.” History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed December 30, 2020. https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Historical-Essays/Fifteenth-Amendment/Reconstruction/

[2] Roxanne L. Gile and Charles E. Jones. “Congressional Racial Solidarity: Exploring Congressional Black Caucus Voting Cohesion, 1971-1990.” Journal of Black Studies 25, no. 5 (1995): 622-41. Accessed December 31, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784635.

[3] The Honorable Louis Stokes (The HistoryMakers A2005.071), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 7, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 5, The Honorable Louis Stokes describes the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

[4] “About,” The Joint Center, accessed December 30, 2020. https://jointcenter.org/about/

[5] The Honorable Augustus F. “Gus” Hawkins (The HistoryMakers A2003.255), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 12, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, The Honorable Augustus F. “Gus” Hawkins talks about the development of the Congressional Black Caucus.

[6] The Honorable William Clay, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.015), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 22, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, William Clay details why the Congressional Black Caucus was formed.

[7] Gile and Charles E. Jones, “Congressional Racial Solidarity.”

[8] Ofield Dukes (The HistoryMakers A2003.112), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 31, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 1, Ofield Dukes describes organizing the first Congressional Black Caucus dinner in 1972.

[9] Ramona Edelin (The HistoryMakers A2003.153), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 14, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 5, Ramona Edelin talks about the purpose and activities of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

[10] The Honorable Louis Stokes (The HistoryMakers A2005.071), interviewed by Racine Tucker-Hamilton, March 18, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, The Honorable Louis Stokes talks about the early goals of the Congressional Black Caucus.

[11] The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (The HistoryMakers A2001.005), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 23, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke speaks about the Congressional Black Caucus.

[12] The Honorable Melvin L. Watt (The HistoryMakers A2002.218), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 2, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 9, Melvin Watt talks about the Congressional Black Caucus in the 1990s.

[13] The Honorable Maxine Waters (The HistoryMakers A2001.076), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 29, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Maxine Waters discusses the achievements of the Congressional Black Caucus.

[14] The Honorable Maxine Waters (The HistoryMakers A2001.076), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 29, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 4, Maxine Waters describes the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus.

[15] “CBC Chair Issues 116th Congress Report,” Congressional Black Caucus, December 28, 2020, accessed January 6, 2021. https://cbc.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=2260

[16] Barbara Williams-Skinner (The HistoryMakers A2003.221), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 15, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Barbara Williams-Skinner remembers the pioneers of the Congressional Black Caucus.[17] “JMU leadership approves new names for three buildings on campus,” James Madison University News, February 19, 2021, accessed February 24, 2021. https://www.jmu.edu/news/2021/02/19-bov-buildings-renamed.shtml

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