Permanent Interests: The Expansion, Organization, and Rising Influence of African Americans in Congress, 1971–2019

The generation of lawmakers who came to Capitol Hill after the civil rights movement created a legislative groundswell. The civil rights acts of the 1960s and court-ordered redistricting opened new avenues of political participation for millions of African Americans. Consequently, many more black politicians were elected to office at the state and federal levels. One-hundred twenty-seven of the 162 African Americans who had served in congressional history through January 2019—more than 78 percent—were seated in Congress after 1970.17 Many of these Members were elected from southern states that had not been represented by black Members and Senators in seven decades or more, including Representative Andrew Young of Georgia, Barbara Jordan of Texas, and Harold Ford Sr. of Tennessee. During the 1992 elections alone, the total black membership in Congress grew by one-third and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois was elected as the first black woman and the first African-American Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in the 1970s/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_intro_cbc_group_2_howard.xml Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Propelled by the Congressional Black Caucus, African-American Members of Congress steadily gained seniority and power in the House of Representatives. In this late 1970s photograph from left to right (standing) are: Louis Stokes of Ohio, Parren Mitchell of Maryland, Charles Rangel of New York, Andrew Young, Jr., of Georgia, Charles Diggs, Jr., of Michigan, Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois, Robert Nix, Sr., of Pennsylvania, Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia, Harold Ford, Sr., of Tennessee; seated from left to right: Cardiss Collins of Illinois, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, and Shirley Chisholm of New York.
With the ranks of African Americans growing in Congress, the time for formal organization and coordination of black legislative efforts had arrived. In early 1971, 13 African-American Members of Congress, led by Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan, formed the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to address “permanent interests” that were important to African Americans, to advance black Members within the institution, and to push legislation, sometimes with potent results. Among the CBC’s notable legislative achievements were the passage of the Humphrey–Hawkins Act of 1978 to promote full employment and a balanced budget; the creation in 1983 of a federal holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.; and legislation in 1986 that imposed the first sanctions against South Africa’s all-white government for its practice of apartheid. Within Congress, the CBC used its influence as a growing unit within the Democratic Caucus to push party leaders to appoint black Members to better committees and more leadership positions. “Blacks never could rely on somebody in Congress to speak out on racial questions; they can with the caucus,” declared Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio, a cofounder of the CBC.18

This generation of African-American Members had more experience in public office before coming to the Hill, particularly in state legislatures. In Congress, black Members held positions on a full cross-section of panels, including the most coveted committees, such as Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Rules. In doing so, they were involved in legislative issues that affected every facet of American life. Most African-American Members represented electorally safe districts, and many enjoyed long careers that allowed them to accrue seniority to move into leadership positions. Twenty-one black Members chaired congressional standing and select committees between 1971 and the opening of the 116th Congress (2019–2021).19 And for the first time, black Members rose into the ranks of party leadership, including Bill Gray, Democratic Majority Whip from 1989 to 1991; J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, Republican Conference Chair from 1999 to 2003; James Clyburn of South Carolina, Vice-Chair of the Democratic Caucus from 2003 to 2006, Chair of the Democratic Caucus from 2006 to 2007, Democratic Majority Whip from 2007 to 2011 and again in 2019, and Assistant Democratic Leader from 2011 to 2018; and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Chair of the Democratic Caucus at the opening of the 116th Congress.

Nevertheless, African-American Members continued to face new challenges. By the opening of the 116th Congress, the 54 black Members and three black Senators represented constituencies whose unique geography and special interests expanded their legislative agendas. Additionally, gender diversity also has shaped the bloc of black Members of Congress. After Shirley Chisholm was first elected in 1968, another 46 African-American women were elected to Congress—making them a uniquely influential component of the story of black Americans in Congress.20 Finally, although leadership positions afforded African Americans a more powerful institutional voice and greater legislative leverage, they exposed latent conflicts between party imperatives and perceived black interests.

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17Statistics as of January 3, 2019.

18Quoted in Robert Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: Racial Politics in the U.S. Congress (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998): 105.

19Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Black Americans Who Have Chaired Standing Committees in the House, 1949 to Present.”

20Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women of Color in Congress.”