Creation and Evolution of the Congressional Black Caucus

As the number of African Americans serving in Congress grew, a long-desired movement to form a more unified organization among black legislators coalesced. When Charles C. Diggs, Jr., of Michigan entered the House of Representatives in 1955, he joined black Members William Dawson of Illinois and Adam Clayton Powell—the largest delegation of African Americans on Capitol Hill since Reconstruction. “In Congress, there was little, if any communication between Dawson and Powell,” Diggs noted. “Their styles were different. In terms of exercise between them, there was not any.”15 Diggs keenly felt the isolation endured by black Members due to their small numbers in Congress and, in some cases, an inability to connect on a personal level. Frustrated that black Representatives lacked a forum to discuss common concerns and issues, Diggs proposed the organization of the Democratic Select Committee (DSC) at the opening of the 91st Congress (1969–1971), maintaining that the DSC would fill a significant void by fostering the exchange of information among the nine African Americans serving in Congress, as well as between black Representatives and House leadership. “The sooner we get organized for group action, the more effective we can become,” Diggs remarked.16 The informal group held sporadic meetings that were mainly social gatherings and had no independent staff or budget.

CBC in 1977/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_congressional_black_caucus_nara_306_pse_78_241.xml Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration In 1977, 15 of the Congressional Black Caucus members posed on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, from left to right: (front row) Barbara Jordan of Texas, Robert Nix, Sr., of Pennsylvania, Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois, Cardiss Collins of Illinois, Parren Mitchell of Maryland, Gus Hawkins of California, Shirley Chisholm of New York; (middle row) John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan, Charles Rangel of New York, Harold Ford, Sr., of Tennessee, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia; (back row) Ronald Dellums of California, Louis Stokes of Ohio, and Charles C. Diggs, Jr., of Michigan.
Newly elected Members and beneficiaries of court-ordered redistricting, William (Bill) Clay, Sr., of Missouri, Louis Stokes of Ohio, and Shirley Chisholm embraced the concept of a group for black legislators to “seize the moment, to fight for justice, to raise issues too long ignored and too little debated”—all of which quickly translated into a more influential association for African-American Members.17 Representative Clay and Stokes formed a fast and enduring friendship. Their close personal relationship boosted momentum to craft a permanent organization. Stokes drew upon his efforts to forge an independent political organization within his own district. “The thrust of our elections was that many black people around America who had formerly been unrepresented, now felt that the nine black members of the House owed them the obligation of also affording them representation in the House,” Stokes explained. He added that “in addition to representing our individual districts, we had to assume the onerous burden of acting as congressman-at-large for unrepresented people around America.”18

With the opening of the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), the number of black Representatives rose to 13—the greatest number of African Americans ever to serve simultaneously in Congress. The DSC met on February 2, 1971, and accepted a recommendation put forth by Clay to create a nonpartisan, formal network for African-American Members.19Charles Rangel of New York, who narrowly defeated longtime Representative Powell in 1970, thought of a new name for the group: the Congressional Black Caucus.20 The CBC elected Diggs as its first chairman. “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies…just permanent interests,” Clay declared—a theme that set the tone for the CBC during its formative years and evolved into its motto.21 Unlike many Members of Congress, Clay surmised, the participants in the new caucus did not owe their elections to traditional liberal or labor bases of support. “We were truly uninhibited, really free to decide our own issues, formulate our own policies, and advance our own programs,” Clay recalled. “Our mission was clear. We had to parlay massive voting potential into concrete economic results.”22

Shirley Chisholm Cardiss Collins Yvonne Brathwaite Burke/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_collins_burke__chisholm_Howard.xml Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University More women joined the first black Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm of New York, on Capitol Hill during this period. Pictured from left to right are: Cardiss Collins of Illinois, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, and Chisholm. In the 110th Congress (2007–2009), women account for one-third of the total number of African-American Members.
In the midst of its transition to a more formal organization, the CBC waged its first public battle during the early months of 1971.23 Upset with President Richard M. Nixon’s refusal to meet with the group, African-American Members made national headlines when they boycotted the January 1971 State of the Union address. “We now refuse to be part of your audience,” Clay wrote on behalf of the caucus, explaining that it perceived the President’s persistent refusal to grant them a White House meeting as symptomatic of the administration’s abandonment of African-American interests.24 The group won a public relations victory when Nixon agreed to a March 1971 meeting. “Our people are no longer asking for equality as a rhetorical promise,” Diggs declared. “They are demanding from the national Administration, and from elected officials without regard to party affiliation, the only kind of equality that ultimately has any real meaning—equality of results.”25 Press coverage provided instant national recognition for the CBC.26 The CBC thereafter skillfully used such tactics to wield clout and build a reputation as a congressional irritant.27

A rapid transformation took place in the organization’s early years as it began a maturation process. Heavy expectations were placed upon the group, initially leading the CBC to adopt a collective approach to representation to present a unified voice for black America.28 The CBC collected and disseminated information on African-American preferences regarding policy, assisted individual black Americans with a range of requests by providing casework services, and spoke on behalf of special interest groups within the black community.29

Countervailing currents pushed and pulled at the CBC membership, who represented diverse constituencies and practiced individual legislative styles. Representative Diggs, a strong backer of the collective leadership model, attempted to organize a national black political convention in 1972. Ultimately, the caucus declined to sponsor the event for fear it would lead to future obligations in which the CBC would not have direct oversight.30 Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign also proved disuniting. The only woman among the CBC’s founders, Chisholm claimed that her gender, in addition to her willingness to form coalitions with liberal whites, Hispanics, and women, irritated her CBC colleagues. Indeed, some felt she betrayed the unified mission of the caucus by reaching out to other groups and undermined the effectiveness of the organization by placing gender above race. Only Ronald Dellums and Parren Mitchell of Maryland publicly endorsed Chisholm for President.31

CBC Meeting with President Ford/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_cbc_white_house_meeting_april_1974_howard.xml Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University After an August 1974 meeting with President Gerald R. Ford, the CBC posed for a picture. Standing from left to right are: Ronald Dellums of California, Robert Nix, Sr., of Pennsylvania, John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan, Shirley Chisholm of New York, Andrew Young, Jr., of Georgia, Assistant to the President Stan Scott, Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois, Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia, Barbara Jordan of Texas, Louis Stokes of Ohio, Charles Diggs, Jr., of Michigan. Seated left to right are: Gus Hawkins of California, Cardiss Collins of Illinois, Charles Rangel of New York, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, Bill Clay, Sr., of Missouri, and Parren Mitchell of Maryland.
Given the burdens and tensions that arose from collective representation, the organization shifted its emphasis. CBC members began classifying themselves as “just” legislators—moving away from the national spotlight and back to responding to the needs of their constituencies.32 That shift in priorities occurred largely under Stokes’s leadership after he succeeded Diggs in 1972 as CBC chairman.33 During his two terms leading the CBC, Stokes downplayed the role of the caucus as a champion of African-American issues. “We had to analyze what our resources were, what we should be doing, and how best to do it,” he explained. “And our conclusion was this: if we were to be effective, if we were going to make the meaningful contribution to minority citizens in this country, then it must be as legislators. This is the area in which we possess expertise—and it is within the halls of Congress that we must make this expertise felt.”34

According to political scientist Marguerite Ross Barnett, after spending its early years reacting to events, the CBC entered another stage of maturation in 1975 when it sought to foster a proactive, anticipatory method for crafting a legislative agenda. Key elements of the earlier organizational strategies informed this approach. By balancing collective leadership with individual representation, the CBC fully embraced the challenge of the dual role African-American legislators faced—speaking for the concerns of black America while simultaneously representing unique constituencies. Political scientist Carol Swain maintains that the group followed this blended leadership approach into the 1990s.35

During this period the CBC also confronted questions about its identity and core values. In 1975, Fortney (Pete) Stark, a white Member representing a congressional district in Oakland, California, with a substantial African-American population, asked to join the all-black caucus. After intense deliberation, the group rejected Stark’s application. “The caucus symbolizes black political development in this country,” CBC Chairman Charles Rangel explained. “We feel that maintaining this symbolism is critical at this juncture in our development.”36 The CBC retained its unwritten rule to limit membership to African Americans but briefly allowed whites to join as nonvoting associates. In 1988, 41 white Representatives joined the CBC when the caucus instituted its new policy.37

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15Carolyn P. DuBose, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs: The Public Figure, the Private Man (Arlington, Virginia: Barton Publishing House, Inc., 1998): 33.

16Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 54–55; Norman C. Miller, “Negroes in the House Join Forces for Black Interests,” 31 March 1970, Wall Street Journal: 1.

17William L. Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991 (New York: Amistad Press Inc., 1992): 116–117. For more on Clay, Stokes, and Chisholm, see Robert C. Maynard, “New Negroes in Congress Focus on City Problems,” 10 August 1969, Washington Post: 2.

18Richard Fenno, Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): 62.

19Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 55–56. According to Singh, Clay’s strategy for crafting a nonpartisan organization included an unsuccessful attempt to coax the lone black Republican of the 92nd Congress, Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, to join the CBC. Sources are ambiguous about whether the CBC formally extended an offer of membership to Brooke. See also Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991: 116–117.

20Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991: 121. For a brief history of the CBC and additional information on the organization, see See also the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.: There were 13 founding members of the CBC: Shirley Chisholm, Bill Clay, Sr., George Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs, Walter Fauntroy, Augustus Hawkins, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell, Robert Nix, Charles Rangel, and Louis Stokes.

21Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991: ix, 165.

22Ibid., 173–174. Clay also observed that he, Chisholm, and Stokes “considered ourselves, along with other black representatives, to have a mandate to speak forcefully and loudly in behalf of equitable treatment of minorities by government.” Ibid., 111.

23At the time of the boycott, the group was still referred to as the DSC, but by the time it met with Nixon, the organization had been re-established as the more formal CBC. To avoid confusion, in this account the group is referred to as the CBC for the entire episode.

24“Black Congressmen to Boycott Nixon,” 22 January 1971, Washington Post: A2; Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991: 139–143. “Benign neglect” of African Americans, postulated by senior Nixon advisor (and later New York Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan, became a subject of public debate when an internal White House memo he drafted on race legislation was leaked to the press in March 1970. Black Americans, Moynihan wrote, had made “extraordinary progress” in the previous decade, adding that a cooling-off period would serve the advancement of civil rights, which were “too much talked about” and “too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids and boodlers on all sides.” Moynihan concluded, “the time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’” See Peter Kihss, “‘Benign Neglect’ on Race Is Proposed by Moynihan,” 1 March 1970, New York Times: 1; “Is ‘Benign Neglect’ the Real Nixon Approach?” 8 March 1970, New York Times: E1. For a modern assessment of President Nixon’s policy of “benign neglect” that stresses the administration’s “schizophrenic” but nevertheless “surprisingly progressive record” on minority and civil rights, see Melvin Small, The Presidency of Richard Nixon (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1999): 161–177, 162 (“schizophrenic”), 183 (“surprisingly progressive”).

25Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (30 March 1971): 8710–8714; “Key Proposals of Black Caucus,” 26 March 1971, Washington Post: A6; Paul Delaney, “Blacks in House Get Nixon Pledge,” 26 March 1971, New York Times: 1. For a more detailed version of the meeting between President Nixon and the CBC, see Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991: 145–148, and DuBose, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs: 96–103.

26Marguerite Ross Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 32 (1975): 36.

27Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus”: 36–39. Barnett concluded that the group’s greatest virtue “was the brilliance of political innovation inherent in the decision of black representatives to work together to represent the interests of the black community.” During the 1970s, the CBC struggled to pass meaningful legislation as it worked on building a reputation as an effectual House organization. Representing only a fraction of the total House membership, it faced formidable challenges: small enrollment, initial lack of seniority among individual Members, and, apart from the black community, a lack of popular support.

28Ibid., 36–38.

29Ibid., 36. See also Carol M. Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993): 38.

30Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus”: 37–38; Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 76.

31Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 77.

32Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus”: 39.

33Paul Delaney, “Rep. Stokes Heads the Black Caucus,” 9 February 1972, New York Times: 23.

34Quoted in Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus”: 39. Under Stokes’s direction, however, the CBC continued to pursue unified efforts. In 1972, the CBC issued a “Black Declaration of Independence” that included a “Black Bill of Rights” intended to “create a society which is truly founded upon the principles of freedom, justice and full equality.” The CBC’s demands, meant to influence the Democratic Party platform and presidential nominee selection process, encompassed issues ranging from national health insurance to increased foreign aid to Africa. See also Austin Scott, “Black Caucus Warns Democrats,” 2 June 1972, Washington Post: A6; Paul Delaney, “House Caucus Lists ‘Black Bill of Rights,’” 2 June 1972, New York Times: 22.

35Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus”: 48; Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: 38. The internal structure of the CBC remained quite consistent throughout this period and it developed a considerable administrative staff. Established in 1976, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, complemented the CBC by conducting research and technical assistance and promoting the political participation of African Americans. The CBCF grew more important when, in 1981, the House Administration Committee wrote new regulations stipulating that Legislative Service Organizations (LSOs), including the CBC, using House office space, supplies, and equipment could no longer receive funding from outside sources such as corporations or nonprofit foundations. However, LSOs could continue to use tax-exempt foundations for research and other caucus activities. The CBC responded to the rule change by transferring most of its responsibilities to the CBCF. In 1995, when the Republican majority abolished LSOs across the board, forcing all caucuses to operate without House resources, the CBC’s administrative functions were entirely subsumed by the CBCF. See Singh, The Congressional Caucus: 63, 68; Dorothy Collin, “Time of Growth for Black Caucus,” 19 September 1982, Chicago Tribune: A3; Lynn Norment, “Our Team on Capitol Hill,” Ebony 39 (August 1984): 44; David C. Ruffin and Frank Dexter Brown, “Clout on Capitol Hill,” Black Enterprise 15 (October 1984): 100. See also the CBCF Web site, at

36“Congress Caucus for Blacks Only,” 22 June 1975, Chicago Tribune: 30; Paul Houston, “Black Caucus Won’t Let White Congressman Join,” 19 June 1975, Los Angeles Times: B18. The issue of white membership in the CBC would surface again in 2007. See Josephine Hearn, “Black Caucus: Whites Not Allowed,” 24 January 2007, Roll Call.

37Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: 38. This development roughly paralleled the decision by the Women’s Caucus to admit dues-paying male members on a nonvoting basis in 1982. See Office of History and Preservation, Women in Congress, 1917–2006: 548.