Many of the changes that occurred during the long generation from 1929 until 1970—brought about by social movements, legal advances, and institutional evolution—profoundly altered the landscape on Capitol Hill for the post-civil rights generation of African-American Members.

Compared with their immediate predecessors, black Members who came to Capitol Hill in the 1970s encountered an institution that was more accessible and more favorable to their legislative interests. Court-ordered redistricting in the wake of the Supreme Court’s enunciation of the “one man, one vote” principle, coupled with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, dramatically expanded the rolls of black voters and led to the creation of majority-black districts, paving the way for an increase in the number of African Americans in Congress. Until 1968 men had represented the black community almost exclusively, but in the decade after Shirley Chisholm’s election, black women (including some from the South and the West) won election to Congress, portending significant changes in the gender ratio of African Americans on Capitol Hill. In 1970 George Collins became the first African American in the 20th century elected to a district that was not majority-black (it would subsequently become majority-black after redistricting). During the next decade, this trend accelerated, as districts where blacks did not constitute a majority elected more black Members to the House, including Parren Mitchell of Maryland, Ronald Dellums of California, and Andrew Young of Georgia.161

Long-simmering interest in institutional reform also benefited these newcomers as reformers sought to deprive entrenched committee chairmen of their power and distribute it more evenly among the rank and file. Black Members won seats on top-tier committees as power in the House democratized.

Civil Rights Leaders/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_young_andrew_rep_william_fitts_ryan_lcusz62-121285.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This 1965 picture of civil rights leaders includes, from left to right, future U.S. Representative Andrew Young, then Representative William Fitts Ryan of New York, activist James Farmer, and future U.S. Representative John Lewis. Farmer lost a 1968 House race to Shirley Chisholm in a newly created, majority-black district in Brooklyn, New York.
Perhaps the most consequential legacy of the black Americans who served in Congress during the early and mid-20th century was the drive to organize black political power and prioritize policy interests. By the late 1960s, although African Americans were slowly winning better committee assignments, they had relatively little power to command the attention of both Congress and voters and sustain a legislative agenda. At the time, no African American in either of the major parties held a top elected leadership position in either chamber.162 Furthermore, the limitations to black Members’ ability to drive legislation were painfully apparent. Representatives Powell and Diggs became adept at garnering publicity, but as Diggs admitted, their efforts amounted to little more than “individualistic policies.”163 The multitude of expectations held by their constituents and by black voters outside their districts doubtlessly magnified the frustration and sense of isolation felt by black Members.164

Within this context, Diggs’s efforts to create a unified issues caucus acquired new importance and urgency in the subsequent decade. Diggs’s DSC, which evolved into the Congressional Black Caucus in the early 1970s, provided a forum for black Members to shape institutional priorities and address the interests of the African-American community. After decades in a largely unsympathetic and often-hostile political wilderness on Capitol Hill, African Americans stood on the verge of achieving unprecedented influence.

Next Section: Permanent Interests


161Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: 117; David E. Rosenbaum, “3 White Districts Choose Negroes for House Seats,” 5 November 1970, New York Times: 28.

162Shirley Chisholm, elected in 1968, would serve as secretary of the Democratic Caucus in the 1970s.

163For more on Diggs's motivation. see Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 54–55, 73; see also DuBose, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs: 79–80.

164The more individual black Members of Congress embraced such a representational strategy, the more demands were put on their finite time and resources. After decades of neglect by white officials and an indifferent if not hostile system, an avalanche of long-deferred requests, many from people residing far outside their districts, sometimes overwhelmed black officeholders. Bill Clay recalled that black constituents often demanded “the impossible from black leaders,” placing exorbitant expectations on them: “personally returning all phone calls . . . attending all PTA and block unit meetings; securing jobs; cosigning personal loans; fixing parking tickets; providing free legal service; acting as a marriage counselor, child psychologist, and medical adviser.” Calls and requests from African Americans nationwide who identified with Representative Shirley Chisholm because of her gender and her race “deluged” her congressional staff. See, for example, Clay, Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots: 7; Charlayne, Hunter, “Shirley Chisholm: Willing to Speak Out,” 22 May 1970, New York Times: 31.