In March 1971 the 13 African-American Members of the U.S. House of Representatives founded the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), declaring their intention to reshape policy, legislation, and the nature of representation on Capitol Hill. For the first time, black Members worked together to draft an agenda for African-American communities across the nation.
Alongside the group’s collective strength, new Members—including California Representatives Ronald V. Dellums and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke—found allies and opportunities in the organization. Elected in 1970, Dellums was a founding member of the caucus and a self-described radical from Oakland. Through the CBC, he pursued his goals as an activist while also building a formidable institutional presence on the Armed Services Committee during the Vietnam War. Burke was one of only three African-American women in Congress when she was elected from a Los Angeles district in 1972. She collaborated with the small but growing number of women in the CBC on a wide range of issues, including promoting women’s rights and economic opportunity. She was also the first Member to give birth and be granted maternity leave while serving in Congress. And in 1976 she became the first woman to chair the CBC.
As members of the CBC, Dellums and Burke faced questions about their legislative interests and political independence. Burke recalled that she was often asked, “Who do you represent?” She responded with an inclusive vision that emphasized gender, race, and community. “I have to represent everyone,” she said. “I have to represent women, I have to represent African Americans, but primarily, I have to represent my district.” In oral histories conducted by the Office of the Historian, Burke and Dellums reflected on their careers on Capitol Hill in the early years of the CBC, and their struggle to define the terms of representation for a new generation of African Americans in Congress in the 1970s and beyond.
A Marine Corps veteran, Dellums worked as a community activist and a social worker in the Bay Area for half a decade before getting involved in local politics by winning a seat on the Berkeley city council in 1967. The Bay Area was a formidable political crucible, and the parts of Oakland and Berkeley in California’s Seventh Congressional District were home to the University of California, the Black Panther Party, and civil rights and antiwar activists.
To run for the House seat from the overwhelmingly Democratic Seventh District, Dellums faced Representative Jeffery Cohelan—a six-term incumbent—in the Democratic primary. Local and national media closely covered the campaign, as Dellums’s provocative statements about police brutality, civil rights, and the Vietnam War made his candidacy a compelling story. Often, reporters labeled him an “aggressive,” uncompromising “black militant” while focusing on his race and his appearance, particularly his six-foot-four-inch frame. He was described as a “stylish dresser who wears his slightly graying hair Afro style,” and his statements of support for the Black Panthers made him a target of much criticism from political opponents in both parties.
Dellums refused to be reduced to a one-dimensional caricature or to let the press and his political rivals narrow his constituency. First, he embraced the radical label. “If it is radical to want a living wage, a decent home and adequate health care for every American then I am a radical,” he declared. Second, his campaign strategy prioritized forging a coalition of voters in a diverse district with a sizeable African-American population as well as a white majority. Many felt that the district’s demographics would advantage his opponent decisively. He was often asked, “What makes you think you can win? You’re a black guy in a white district.”
In response, Dellums hit the streets to campaign with a message of inclusion and reform. He organized a voter registration drive that by one estimate added 15,000 voters to the rolls. He talked about the specific needs of the black community, but stressed the goal of coalition-building in his diverse district.
We came along at a time and in a place where we had to hear each other’s analysis and feel each other’s pain and rage. Blacks heard whites, and whites heard Latinos, and Latinos heard Asians, the men heard women, the gays heard straights, and straights heard—right across the board. . . . I came committed to express the concerns of all these folks.
Dellums’s strategy succeeded and he, along with African-American Representatives George Collins of Illinois and Parren Mitchell of Maryland, won House seats representing majority-white districts in the 1970 election.
When he arrived on Capitol Hill for the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), Dellums faced an internal dilemma: how could he translate his political agenda into action? Reflecting on his career, Dellums determined that activism and legislative achievements were not mutually exclusive.
I also understood that there was a legislative process that was more pragmatic, that it’s the give and take. Because you got Representatives from all over the country, and you got to come together and figure out what, ultimately, is in the best interest of the country and what is the best statement that we could make. That doesn’t necessarily end up being the cry of the activists. The cry of the movement is to bring pressure. The legislative process becomes a practical application of that.
Dellums determined that his best chance at manipulating the levers of power in the House would be through the committee system. As a veteran and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, Dellums wanted to become the first African American to serve on the Armed Services Committee, and at the start of his second term, the CBC made the case that African-American servicemen and women deserved representation on the committee, especially during a time of war. The committee’s chairman, F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana, who had signed the Southern Manifesto against desegregation in 1956 and was an ardent supporter of military spending, called Dellums a “radical from Berkeley” and refused to allow him to join his committee. But CBC chairman Louis Stokes of Ohio and Bill Clay of Missouri eventually convinced Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma to support Dellums’s bid for Armed Services despite Hébert’s resistance. Dellums recalled that this significant early victory emboldened the CBC to continue to demand seats on influential committees. “If we could do that, we could do anything,” he said.
Dellums embraced the responsibility that went with representing the African-American community across the nation. He also used his platform as a Member of Congress to connect the experience of African Americans in the United States to many of the national liberation movements on the African continent. Beginning in his first term in the House, Dellums led a campaign to undermine the apartheid regime in the Republic of South Africa. In 1971, for instance, CBC chair Charles Diggs of Michigan asked Dellums to meet with workers from the Polaroid Corporation. They had traveled from Massachusetts to Capitol Hill to encourage CBC members to end the company’s role in printing photographs for identification cards used by the South African regime.
Dellums spent the next two decades pushing the U.S. government to use its economic and political influence to end apartheid. He proposed the first sanctions bill against South Africa in December 1971, and played a major role in the 1986 passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA), which finally imposed economic penalties on South Africa. Dellums had added more stringent disinvestment provisions to the bill that passed the House, but the Senate stripped the bill of these measures before passing the CAAA. Nevertheless, Dellums considered the strong statement by the House and the passage of the CAAA a significant victory because it generated additional pressure on both the apartheid regime and Congress. “There’s a movement out there. Movements are strengthened by victories. People in the movement will be buoyed by, and strengthened by, this effort.” He continued to push the issue until the demise of apartheid in the early 1990s.
The CAAA contributed to the gradual collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which ultimately brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to power in the early 1990s. In June 1990, Mandela visited the United States to address a Joint Meeting of Congress. Dellums escorted Mandela onto the House Floor and later hosted him in his hometown for an outdoor speech at the Oakland Coliseum. Dellums recalled that Oakland’s diverse crowd had impressed Mandela, and that Mandela said that he hoped the new South Africa would bring people together in the same way. He told Dellums, “Now I better understand you. I now better understand your politics. You represent the human family.”
During her 1972 congressional campaign, glowing profiles of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke appeared in newspapers and magazines chronicling her life, marriage, hobbies, appearance, and attire. Jet magazine profiled Burke in two cover stories before she was elected. Many carefully contrasted Burke with prominent activists and politicians. Articles in the Washington Post described Burke as “quiet” and cautioned observers not to expect “a headline conscious women’s libber” promoting the agenda of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
As a lawyer and member of the California state assembly, Burke’s credentials and legislative experience made her an impressive candidate. When the state created a new congressional district in southwest Los Angeles, Burke won the Democratic primary, defeating a popular African-American Los Angeles city councilman with 54 percent of the vote. The heavily Democratic district all but assured Burke of victory in November. Her televised appearance as vice chair of the platform committee at the Democratic National Convention in August 1972 further raised her profile.
When Burke joined the 93rd Congress (1973–1975), she realized that African-American women Members were constantly in the spotlight. “Everyone watched every move that we made,” she said. Burke recognized that this “high visibility” enabled them to campaign for legislation and causes that were not being addressed by other Members. They promoted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and successfully passed legislation that made equal access to financial credit a reality for women in 1974.
Burke took a similar approach when she became chair of the House Beauty Shop Committee in 1975. She saw this as another opportunity to correct a workplace injustice and to help working women. Unlike their male counterparts in the House Barber Shop, the employees of the Beauty Shop—all of whom were women—were not considered fulltime government employees and did not receive a benefits package. Burke’s staff objected to her taking on the issue, but she welcomed the challenge, saying, “someone has to stand up for women, and someone has to stand up for women who are working over there in the beauty shop, plus all those women who may want to go to the beauty shop.”
In 1977 she shepherded to passage a House resolution that gave the Beauty Shop’s women employees workplace status equal to the male barbers, improving their working conditions, pay, and benefits.
Despite her national profile, Burke was careful to prioritize her district, which at the time was a manufacturing center for the aerospace and defense industries. Burke described the CBC as, “a unique coming together of people from different regions with different kinds of districts, but we could come together on those issues that affect African Americans.” Each member of the CBC had the same goal: representing the interests of their district and the African-American community at large. Burke’s nuanced vision of representation, however, went beyond local concerns. “I always felt I had three constituencies,” Burke recalled.
I had a constituency of African Americans, a constituency of women, and a constituency that elected me. One of the things that came with all of those constituencies was a demand for appearances, so all of us as women and all of us as minorities were called upon. And the expectation in all states that did not have women-elected Members and who did not have African-American-elected Members—they expected us to go. So I had to travel. We all had to travel.
Dellums and Burke both recognized the power of African-American representation in Congress in practical and symbolic terms. After decades of isolation on the margins of American politics, the CBC’s organized political agenda enabled African Americans to secure a foothold in the legislative process. Outside the halls of Congress, the prominent role of African-American Members initiated a transformative change in perception. Burke often told the story of when a 10-year-old African-American girl visited her office and became confused when she saw the Congresswoman sitting behind her desk. The young constituent asked, “Why, how could you write the laws? You look like one of us.” In the 1970s, Burke, Dellums, and their colleagues in the CBC were in the process of fundamentally redefining what it meant to be a Member of Congress.
Sources: “The Honorable Yvonne Braithwaite Burke Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 22 July 2015; “The Honorable Ronald V. Dellums Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 19 April 2012 and 19 June 2012; H.R. 12330, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (1971); Baltimore Sun, 10 October 1970; Los Angeles Times, 27 May 1970, 4 June 1970, 13 January 1973; New York Times, 14 June 1970, 5 November 1970, 7 October 1972; San Francisco Chronicle, 23 June 1990; Washington Post, 17 January 1971, 14 July 1972, 22 October 1972; Ronald V. Dellums, Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).Follow @USHouseHistory