Legislative and Electoral Characteristics

As in the Reconstruction Congresses, African-American Members during this era were usually assigned to modestly powerful committees.17 Among them were Invalid Pensions (3), Interior and Insular Affairs (3), Veterans’ Affairs (3), Indian Affairs (2), Post Office and Post Roads (2), Expenditures in the Executive Departments (2), and District of Columbia (2). Because most of the black Members during this period represented northern industrialized districts, none served on the Agriculture Committee—although that did not stop House leaders from initially trying to assign Shirley Chisholm to the panel in a clear attempt to limit her effectiveness as a legislator. As in the 19th century, the most common assignment for black Members was the Education and Labor Committee (4), which had oversight of federal laws affecting schools, workplaces, and unions.

Other African-American Representatives won seats on notably influential committees. In the 78th and 79th Congresses (1943–1947), William Dawson served on the Irrigation and Reclamation Committee, which had wide-ranging jurisdiction over public lands and water projects. In 1965 John Conyers won a seat as a first-term Member on the influential Judiciary Committee, which was then under the leadership of liberal Democrat Emanuel Celler of New York and which considered all of the major civil rights bills of the decade.18Charles Diggs won a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee panel in 1959, becoming its first African-American Member. His appointment to the committee underscored African Americans’ increasing interest in Cold War policies, particularly as they affected the rise of postcolonial independent states in Africa. By 1969 Diggs chaired the Subcommittee on Africa and served as one of the principal organizers of the congressional anti-apartheid movement. Since committee responsibilities in the Senate tend to be broader than those of their House counterparts, the increased workload opened avenues onto important panels for Edward Brooke, who won assignments to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and the Joint Defense Production Committee.19

Longevity and Seniority

William L. Dawson/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_dawson_willam_hc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Unlike Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York, William Dawson of Illinois preferred to stay out of the limelight and work within institutional pathways to effect civil rights change.
The turnover rate for black Members of Congress in the 20th century remained low—a testament to the power of incumbency in Congress. For African-American House Members, the creation of majority-black districts, particularly in the late 1960s and the 1970s, provided additional electoral safety. Of all the Black Americans elected to the House and the Senate from 1928 through 1970, only one incumbent lost in a general election: De Priest in 1934. The other African-American Member who lost his seat—Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—did so in the Democratic primary.20

During this period, black Members of Congress tended to be slightly older upon their first election than the rest of Congress.21 The average age of African-American Members at their first election was 46.4 years; their white colleagues, who began their careers at marginally earlier ages, enjoyed a statistical, if not a determinative, advantage in accruing seniority. Roughly one-third of black Members during this era were elected in their 30s, as was the general House population that was elected between 1930 and 1960. Moreover, four African-American Members elected in their thirties—Powell, Diggs, Conyers, and Clay—all had unusually long careers and eventually held a variety of leadership posts. At 31 years of age, Diggs was the youngest black Member elected during this period. Nix was the oldest; elected to the House for the first time at age 59, he claimed to be eight years younger than he actually was.

Safer districts often led to longer careers on Capitol Hill. Of the 13 African Americans elected to Congress between 1928 and 1970, 10 served for at least 10 years; eight served for more than 20 years.22 Longevity allowed Members to gain seniority on committees, advance into committee leadership, or request more powerful committee assignments. Consequently, black Members set a number of milestones during this era. Representative Dawson became the first African American to chair a standing congressional committee when he earned the gavel on the House Expenditures in the Executive Departments Committee (later named the Government Operations Committee) in 1949. With the exception of the period from 1953 to 1955, when Republicans controlled the chamber, Dawson chaired the panel until his death in 1970. Representative Powell served as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee from 1961 to 1967, overseeing much of the education reform legislation passed during the Great Society. Additionally, Dawson, Powell, Diggs, and Nix chaired 10 subcommittees on six separate standing committees during this era.23

Incumbency conferred a substantial amount of power in the district as well. Because incumbent Members often controlled or influenced the local political machinery, they were rarely challenged from within the party. In some measure, that sway over local politics helps explain the long careers of the Members in this section. But incumbency also strengthened the intangible bonds between Members and their largely African-American constituencies. By serving the same communities for years, the Members in this section often developed a base of loyal voters who saw them as advocates for black interests.24 These relationships endured even when incumbents, such as Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Diggs, faced ethics charges or legal problems.25

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17Charles Stewart III, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (November 1992): 835–856.

18Stewart, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947.”

19Early women Senate pioneers, including Hattie Caraway of Arkansas and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, also benefited from this circumstance.

20For a standard work on the power of incumbency and the low turnover rates in the 20th century, see John R. Hibbing, Congressional Careers: Contours of Life in the U.S. House of Representatives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

21See Allan G. Bogue, Jerome M. Clubb, Carroll R. McKibben, and Santa A. Traugott, “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 275–302, especially 291–293. The average age of a freshman House Member from 1930 through 1950 was 45; from 1950 through 1960 it was 43.

22For more information on Member longevity averages, see Mildred Amer, “Average Years of Service for Members of the Senate and House of Representatives, First through 109th Congresses,” 9 November 2005, Report RL32648, Congressional Research Service.

23See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Black Americans Who Have Chaired Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House and Senate, 1885–Present.” Dawson and Powell also became the first African Americans to chair full subcommittees of permanent standing committees: the Executive and Legislative Reorganization Subcommittee of Government Operations, and the Mines and Mining Subcommittee of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, respectively. Others elected during this period who later served as full committee chairmen were Charles Diggs Jr. (District of Columbia), Robert Nix (Post Office and Civil Service), Louis Stokes (Select Committee on Presidential Assassinations, Standards of Official Conduct, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence), Augustus Hawkins (Joint Committee on Printing, Joint Committee on the Library, House Administration, Education and Labor), William L. Clay (Post Office and Civil Service), and John Conyers Jr. (Government Operations, Judiciary). For a complete listing of African Americans who chaired standing congressional committees, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Black Americans Who Have Chaired Standing Committees in the U.S. House, 1949– Present.”

24For personal relations between Members and their constituents, see Richard F. Fenno, Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003): especially 259–261. See also Carol Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993): 217–222. For an analysis of redistricting and black representation generally, see Kenny J. Whitby, The Color of Representation: Congressional Behavior and Black Interests (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

25Diggs’s Detroit area constituents returned him to Congress in November 1978 with 79 percent of the vote, despite his having been convicted of mail fraud and falsifying payroll forms weeks earlier. Similarly, in 1967, when the House voted to exclude Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., due to his legal and attendance issues, his Harlem constituents returned him to his vacant seat in a special election, with 86 percent of the vote.