By the beginning of the 21st century, the number of African-American Members of Congress had increased dramatically. The effect of which enabled them to expand their hold on leadership positions, spearhead legislative initiatives, develop important coalitions, and win key legislative triumphs. Despite the attendant growing pains, these were remarkable achievements in an institution that was often resistant to change.
The inception and growth of the CBC during this era marked the principal institutional development in the story of African Americans in Congress. The caucus acquired stature rapidly, transforming itself into a potent bloc for advocating issues and promoting African Americans to positions of power within Congress. The CBC set a new standard for organizational politics in the late 20th century, one that would be followed by other minority groups in Congress, including the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
A new era for African Americans in Congress began in 2006 when the Democrats regained control of the House for the first time in 12 years. The change in party control amplified the power of the then all-Democratic CBC. Once again, seniority positioned the longest-serving African-American legislators for influential roles throughout the committee system and the House leadership. When the 110th Congress convened in January 2007, African Americans held the chairmanships of five full House committees and 17 subcommittees. In all, 22 of the 43 African Americans in Congress—51 percent—held committee leadership positions.205 Committee leadership crystallized as a significant institutional strength for African-American Members. It was a watershed development in light of the immense power wielded just decades earlier by entrenched segregationist committee chairs who used it to thwart civil rights legislation.
The 2008 election ushered in a transformative period that expanded the notion of the possible in American politics. The nation elected its first African-American President, Barack Obama, and in the House during the 111th Congress, four African-American legislators served as committee chairs, and 16 as subcommittee chairs. This moment proved fleeting, however, when the Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 election. While President Obama was re-elected in 2012, African Americans in Congress stayed focused on protecting the advances made since the civil rights movement.
On March 7, 2015, Americans were reminded of the dramatic social and political changes that had reshaped the nation since the late 1960s. President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and a bipartisan delegation of more than 100 Members of Congress joined a crowd of 60,000 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama.206 The brutal attack by law enforcement on civil rights protestors marching from Montgomery to Selma left an indelible mark on the struggle for civil and political rights in the United States. Within months, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Congressman Lewis, who had been beaten and jailed as a participant in the peaceful protest in 1965, addressed the crowd in 2015 alongside the first African-American President. He acknowledged the role of the hundreds of demonstrators in 1965 that were not recognized by name at this commemoration. They had secured access to the vote for their fellow citizens, and enabled the political careers of black Members, like Lewis, who represented southern states. The march had created a path to local, state, and federal offices for African Americans across the nation.
The history of black Americans in Congress is the history of grueling struggle—for representation, equal protection, and power. Lewis recognized that the march to freedom was long and full of detours, obstacles, and danger. To fully realize the promise of American democracy, the struggle must continue, Lewis said. “We have a distance to go. We aren’t there yet.”207
205This figure includes Juanita Millender-McDonald, who led the House Administration Committee from January 2007 until her death in April 2007.
206Berman, Give Us the Ballot: 3.
207Susan Page, “50 Years after Selma, Marching On: Rep. John Lewis has Unfinished Business at 75,” 25 February 2015, USA Today: A8.