Permanent Interests: The Expansion, Organization, and Rising Influence of African Americans in Congress, 1971–2019
The modern era of the nearly 150-year history of black Americans in Congress began in 1971, when the 13 African-American Members of the U.S. House of Representatives founded the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). During the 1970s, the CBC developed an expansive legislative agenda that highlighted the common issues facing African Americans regardless of their congressional district. As “the elected and legitimate representatives of 25 million Americans,” the CBC claimed the mantle of national leadership for the African-American community and formed a potent bloc for pushing legislative items on a diverse array of issues, from voting rights to foreign relations and economic policy.1 Ultimately, the CBC’s bold organizational strategy redefined the role of minorities in Congress and expanded the possibilities for African-American politicians on Capitol Hill.
The CBC’s actions in the 1970s laid the foundation for a new generation of black Americans in Congress to transition from a period of prolonged protest to full political participation. Black Members enjoyed a tremendous surge in numbers—at least in the House—reflecting the success of the civil rights movement. Minority groups and women exercised their new freedom to run for federal, state, and local offices and fully participate in American politics and society. Fully 78 percent of all African Americans who have served in Congress entered the House or Senate beginning in 1971.2 These startling gains derived from the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its subsequent extensions, as well as from Supreme Court decisions requiring legislative redistricting so that black voters could be represented more equitably.
The electoral longevity of African-American Members—boosted by districts that were drawn with black majorities—coupled with the CBC’s success lobbying House leaders and progressive institutional reformers in the 1970s, placed many black Members in key committee and party leadership positions. A growing influence in Congress, more focused and forceful than in previous generations, meant that African-American Members were able to achieve significant legislative victories.
Black Members faced new and sometimes unanticipated challenges resulting from their numerical, organizational, and leadership successes. After redistricting dramatically boosted the numbers of African-American Members in the early 1990s, black voting rights and favorable congressional districts became the targets of formidable opposition. Legislation at the local and state level challenged these gains, as did a number of court cases. Although the CBC provided African-American Members with a forum to discuss their legislative agendas and strategies, black Members disagreed about many issues, partially because each Member represented the interests of a unique constituency. Finally, while African-American Members enjoyed unprecedented leadership strength for most of this era, greater power often placed black leaders in a quandary when the imperatives of promoting the leadership or party agenda conflicted with the goals of the CBC or the demands of African-American voters. Over time, many African-American Members carved out new roles on Capitol Hill, independent of the CBC and the later efforts of the civil rights movement.
The post-1970 generation of black Americans in Congress navigated the changing landscape of American politics with these concerns in mind. By the turn of the 21st century, African-American Members of Congress represented districts across the nation, pursued diverse policy interests, and employed an array of legislative strategies. Their numbers steadily increased, reaching an all-time high of 54 Representatives and three Senators at the start of the 116th Congress (2019–2021). The growth in the number of black office holders in the House and the Senate has helped firmly secure a voice for the African-American community in the legislative branch.
In 2008 the electoral opportunities for African Americans provided a platform for a first-term Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, to become the first African-American President of the United States, capping nearly four decades of electoral and legislative achievements. Ultimately, this chapter chronicles the remarkable gains in representation and power in the history of African Americans in Congress while also highlighting the troubling persistence of racial discrimination and political marginalization in American politics.
1According to Robert Singh, “The central function of caucuses is to bring together legislators with shared interests, backgrounds, and policy goals.” Robert Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: Racial Politics in the U.S. Congress (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998): 58. As internal congressional organizations, caucuses like the CBC formed in great part to pursue a collective agenda with a “strength in numbers” strategy.
2On January 3, 2019, the closing date for this edition, the figure stood at 127 of the 162 who had served in all of congressional history.