Permanent Interests: The Expansion, Organization, and Rising Influence of African Americans in Congress, 1971–2007

The modern era of African Americans’ nearly 140-year history in Congress began in 1971. Black Members enjoyed a tremendous surge in numbers, at least in the House, reflecting a larger historical process, as minority groups and women exercised their new freedom to participate in American society. Fully 71 percent of all African Americans who have served in Congress entered the House or Senate after 1970.1 These startling gains derived from the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its subsequent extensions, as well as from Supreme Court decisions requiring legislative redistricting so that black voters could be represented more equitably.

Founders of the CBC/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_cbc_group_3_howard.xml Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University The 13 founding members of the newly formed CBC gathered for a picture. Standing left to right are: Parren Mitchell of Maryland, Charles Rangel of New York, William L. (Bill) Clay, Sr., of Missouri, Ronald V. Dellums of California, George Collins of Illinois, Louis Stokes of Ohio, Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois, John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan, and Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia. Seated left to right are: Robert Nix, Sr., of Pennsylvania, Charles Diggs, Jr., of Michigan, Shirley Chisholm of New York, and Augustus (Gus) Hawkins of California.
Greater numbers of African-American Members provided renewed momentum for convening a formal group and, in 1971, 13 individuals created the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).2 The CBC became a focal point for addressing issues important to blacks nationally by acting as an advocacy group for African Americans within the institution and forming a potent bloc for pushing legislative items. A growing influence, more focused and forceful than in previous generations, accompanied the organizational trend. The electoral longevity of African-American Members (boosted by districts that were drawn with black majorities), coupled with the CBC’s lobbying of House leaders and progressive institutional reforms in the 1970s, placed many black Members in key committee and party leadership positions. Over time, black advancement within the institution changed Members’ legislative strategies. “Many of the [early] Black Caucus members came out of the heat of the civil rights struggle,” William (Bill) Gray III of Pennsylvania observed. “We have a group of new members whose strategies were shaped in the post-civil rights movement—who use leverage within the system. We see ourselves not as civil rights leaders, but as legislators…the pioneers had made it possible for us to be technicians.”3

Civil Rights Leaders in 1963/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_civil_rights_leaders_1963_lcusz62-126847.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress In 1963, civil rights leaders, from left to right, John Lewis (future Georgia Representative), Whitney Young, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins met at the Hotel Commodore in New York City for a strategy session.
The post-1970 generation of black Americans in Congress marked a watershed in American history—a transition from a period of prolonged protest to full political participation. Similar to other minority groups on Capitol Hill entering a stage of institutional maturity, African Americans faced new and sometimes unanticipated challenges resulting from their numerical, organizational, and leadership successes. Redistricting that dramatically boosted the numbers of African-American Members in the early 1990s evoked opposition that sought to roll back or dilute black voting strength. Moreover, by the end of the decade, redistricting had largely run its course in areas where black votes could be concentrated with a goal of electing more African Americans to Congress. The net result was that the number of African Americans in Congress leveled off by the early 1990s and hovered in the high 30s and low 40s for eight election cycles from 1992 through 2006. Although organizational trends provided African-American Members a forum to discuss their legislative agendas and strategies, black Members disagreed about many issues, partially because each Member represented the interests of a unique constituency. Finally, while African-American Members enjoyed unprecedented leadership strength for most of this era, greater power often placed black leaders in a quandary when the imperatives of promoting the leadership or party agenda conflicted with perceived “black interests.”

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Footnotes

1On December 31, 2007, the figure stood at 86 of the 121 who had served in all of congressional history.

2According to Robert Singh, “The central function of caucuses is to bring together legislators with shared interests, backgrounds, and policy goals.” Robert Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: Racial Politics in the U.S. Congress, (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1998): 58. As internal congressional organizations, caucuses like the CBC formed in great part to pursue a collective agenda with a “strength in numbers” strategy.

3Quoted in Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 51.