Background and Precongressional Experience

Like earlier generations of black legislators on Capitol Hill, the 127 African Americans who entered Congress in the period from 1971 to January 2019 came to the Hill after years of success in the private and public sectors and touted a number of civic achievements. Prominent careers in state government propelled the large numbers of African Americans elected to Congress in the 1990s.3 Like all the previous generations of black Members, these individuals were typical of their peers among the general membership of the House and Senate—composed largely of business, law, public service, and other elite professionals. They were exceedingly well educated, as was the general congressional membership.4 They also largely experienced trends that were prevalent among the general congressional population, including a decline in prior military experience and a higher median age at first election.5

Civil Rights Activism

A defining precongressional experience for many early in this generation was their shared background in local and national civil rights protests. Many of the Members from this era, especially those first elected in the 1970s and 1980s, came of age during the civil rights movement. Some were prominent figures. John Lewis of Georgia, elected in 1986, co-founded and led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became a pillar of the movement—staging sit-ins in segregated stores, participating in the Freedom Rides of 1961, helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in March 1965, leading marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in one of the galvanizing moments of the era. Andrew Young of Georgia, elected in 1972, was a principal aide to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., serving as executive director and executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King also tapped a young Washington minister, Walter Fauntroy, as director of the city’s SCLC bureau. As the SCLC’s congressional lobbyist, Fauntroy honed his skills as a coalition builder and was elected the District of Columbia’s Delegate in 1971.

Ronald Dellums/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_dellums_ron_reflective_nara.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Ronald Dellums of California, who ran as a peace candidate and Vietnam War opponent, won a seat on the Armed Services Committee in 1973. The first African American to serve on the committee, Dellums’s goal was to rein in the military’s budget.
Early in their political careers, some future black Members of Congress also grappled with internal divisions in the civil rights movement between those who embraced King’s nonviolent protests and those who preferred a more aggressive and confrontational stance.6 The Black Power movement emerged from a longstanding schism in the civil rights movement between those committed to nonviolence and those who embraced the doctrine of armed self-defense.7 These tensions were exacerbated in the 1960s, as those at the forefront of the Black Power movement, such as Stokely Carmichael—who succeeded Lewis as head of SNCC—demanded a radical change in the strategy, tactics, and goals of the civil rights movement. Carmichael expressed frustration and rage with intransigent racism and the structural limitations stifling the political, economic, and cultural ambitions of the African-American community.

But “Black Power” had different meanings within the movement. For some, Black Power meant using force to rebel against systemic racism in the United States. Organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense harnessed this notion of militantly resisting the repression into a political movement. The revolutionary nationalism of the Panthers tied black independence to the global struggle against imperialism and colonialism. At the same time, cultural nationalists welcomed the opportunity to reclaim African-American history and culture. Activists adopted Black Power in local efforts to promote economic independence for black communities by advocating for more black-owned businesses and better rights in the workplace.8 The Richard M. Nixon administration even framed its campaign promoting black entrepreneurship as an expression of the principles of the Black Power movement.9

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, who served in the House in 1966 when Carmichael first employed the term “Black Power,” briefly allied himself with the “new black militants” and defined Black Power as “a new philosophy for the tough, proud young Negroes who categorically refuse to compromise any longer for their rights.”10 John Lewis, who resigned from SNCC in July 1966 because of its militancy and provocative rhetoric, recalled that SNCC had used a similar phrase during the Selma protests but that “it had more to do with self-reliance than with black supremacy.” Lewis viewed Carmichael’s provocative rhetoric as divisive, creating tensions “both within the movement itself and between the races. It drove people apart rather than brought them together.”11

Many Black Power advocates disputed this perspective, emphasizing the way the movement tried to build solidarity, bolster the political power of black communities, and reshape electoral politics. Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton defined Black Power as “control. When black people lack a majority, Black Power means proper representation and the sharing of control. It means the creation of power bases, of strength, from which black people can press to change local or nation-wide patterns of oppression—instead of from weakness.”12

This quest for a more effective implementation of electoral power was put into practice by Carmichael in Lowndes County, Alabama. In 1966 he led SNCC in a campaign to organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization to use the vote to establish local control in a black-majority county dominated by a white minority.13 Several years later, in the early 1970s, the Black Panthers ran candidates for election to the Oakland city council, presenting an agenda focused on urban reform and local control.14 In each case, these local election efforts by Carmichael and, later, the Panthers were ultimately unsuccessful. Nevertheless, they provide a link between the Black Power movement and the more conventional struggle to elect black candidates to public offices.

In large measure, the experiences of two Members of Congress demonstrate how the Black Power movement shaped American politics at the local and national level. Ronald Dellums of California, who represented an Oakland–Berkeley House district, found himself at the center of the struggle between Black Panthers and the Oakland police force in the late 1960s. The Black Panther Party had been formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to counter police abuses against Oakland’s African-American citizens. As a member of the Berkeley city council, Dellums once convinced Seale to disperse an angry, agitated crowd of Panther supporters at a council meeting. Dellums noted that juggling the complex and competing agendas of radical factions developed his political acumen by forcing him “to employ all the skills at my command to build legislative majorities.”15 Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois was a co-founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He, too, turned to a more conventional form of politics after leaving the party and went on to serve a decade as a Chicago city councilman before winning election to the U.S. House in 1992.

Prior Elective Office

The vast majority of African Americans who entered Congress after 1970 held prior elective office (94 of the 127, or 74 percent), with a substantial increase in the numbers with service in state legislatures. Nearly half (60) of the African Americans elected to Congress from 1971 through January 2019 served as state legislators: 31 in the lower chamber, seven in the upper chamber, and 22 in both chambers of their respective statehouses. Of these, several performed leadership functions in their respective chambers, including Barbara Jordan (president pro tempore of the Texas senate), Harold E. Ford Sr. (majority whip of the Tennessee house of representatives), and Carol Moseley-Braun (assistant majority leader of the Illinois house of representatives).16Karen Bass of California served as speaker of the California state assembly—the first woman of color to serve as the speaker of a state house.17 Widespread service in state legislatures, perhaps more than any other precongressional characteristic, meant that black Members of Congress had almost the same political background as the rest of their colleagues in the House and Senate.

Barbara Jordan/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_jordan_barbara_meeting_lbj_1968_lbj_library-767.xml Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto; image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration Barbara Jordan became the first black female state senator in the United States when she was elected to the Texas senate in 1966. This 1968 photograph shows Jordan at a White House meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (not pictured) and other legislators. When Jordan was elected to the U.S. House in 1972, Johnson persuaded congressional leaders to assign Jordan to the influential Judiciary Committee.
Voting rights reforms and redistricting often made state legislatures more diverse in the decades after Congress enacted civil rights legislation. For instance, between 1970 and 1992, the number of African Americans serving in state legislatures increased 274 percent (from 168 to 463). The growth occurred fastest in the South—the area of the country with the largest number of black residents and where voting rights legislation and court decisions provided greater access to the ballot. From 32 seats in 1970, black officials held 226 in 1992—a gain of 894 percent.18 Nationally, these trends have continued, albeit more slowly, over the last two decades. According to 2015 figures from the National Conference of State Legislators, African Americans held about 9 percent of all seats in the upper or lower house in state legislatures nationwide.19

At the state and the national levels, these gains have been particularly striking among women. Over time, African-American women have accounted for an increasing percentage of the sum total of black legislators in state capitals and in Washington, DC. For instance, in 1970 there were only 15 black women state legislators—accounting for less than 10 percent of all African-American state legislators. By 1992 the number of black women state legislators had increased to 131, or roughly 28 percent of all black state legislators. By 2018 that number had more than doubled to 277.20 As with other women in Congress, legislative experience at the state level provided a vehicle for election to Capitol Hill. In 1971 there was only one black woman in Congress—Shirley Chisholm of New York—among a total of 14 African Americans in Congress. As of January 3, 2019, African-American women accounted for 44 percent of all the sitting black Members of Congress.21

State legislatures were just one avenue to attain higher office. Traditional experience in local and municipal elective office also typified this post-1971 cohort of black Members of Congress. Seventeen served on city councils, and five were elected county council members or commissioners. Four served as mayors, nine served as local or municipal judges, and several others held other elected positions, such as school board member, recorder of deeds, and justice of the peace. Three individuals held high-ranking state or territorial positions: Mervyn Dymally, lieutenant governor of California; Melvin Evans, governor of the Virgin Islands; and G. K. Butterfield, North Carolina supreme court justice. Finally, several individuals held prominent federal positions prior to winning their first congressional election, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1970s, and Diane Watson, U.S. Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia from 1999 through 2000.

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3For a discussion of this phenomenon among women Members, see Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2006): 326–327, 545.

4See Matthew Sobek, “Table Bc798–805, College Graduation Rate, by Sex, Nativity, and Race, 1940–1997,” and “Table Bc806 – 813, High School Noncompletion Rate, by Sex, Nativity, and Race: 1940–1997,” in Historical Statistics of the United States, vol. 2: Work and Welfare, ed. Susan B. Carter et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 469–470.

5Reflecting a trend among the general congressional population, relatively few African-American Members from this era were service veterans. Among black Members of Congress elected from 1971 through 2018, slightly more than 14 percent served in the U.S. military. Most of these served in the U.S. Army. Four were World War II veterans, and one was a Korean War veteran. With the end of the compulsory draft in 1971, fewer Americans served in the military; unlike earlier generations, for whom military service was a common formative experience, this generation had fewer members that were linked by the commonalities of life in uniform. After 1970, the average age of African-American Members upon their first election to Congress was almost 48 years. Men (78 individuals) won their first elections at an average age of 45.8 years; women (40 individuals) averaged 52.4 years of age at the time of first election. This consequential statistical difference, in theory, benefited men who had more time to accrue seniority necessary to attain leadership positions and high-ranking or prestigious committee assignments. The youngest Members elected during this era were a father–son duo: Harold E. Ford Jr. who succeeded his father in a Memphis, Tennessee, district in the 1996 elections, was 26 years of age (Ford Sr. was 29 at the time of his first election in 1974). The younger Ford has the distinction of being the second-youngest African American ever elected to Congress: John Roy Lynch of Mississippi first won election to Congress in 1872 at the age of 25. The oldest African American elected during this time period was George Crockett of Michigan, who was 71 when he succeeded Charles Diggs Jr. in 1980.

6For a comprehensive treatment of the civil rights movement—its origins, triumphs, principal leaders, and internal divisions—see the three-volume history by Taylor Branch: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998); At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006). See also Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008).

7Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

8Laura Warren Hill and Julia Rabig, eds., The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism, and Corporate Responsibility in America (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2012); David Goldberg and Trevor Griffey, eds., Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

9Dean Kotlowski, “Black Power—Nixon Style: The Nixon Administration and Minority Business Enterprise,” Business History Review 72 (Autumn 1998): 409–445.

10Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991): 28.

11John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998): 371.

12Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967): 46.

13Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006).

14Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

15Ronald V. Dellums and H. Lee Halterman, Lying Down With the Lions: A Public Life From the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000): 44–45.

16At least three other African-American Members held leadership positions in their respective state legislatures: Mervyn Dymally (chairman of the California senate’s Democratic caucus), Elijah Cummings (speaker pro tempore of the Maryland house of delegates), and Gwen Moore (president pro tempore of the Wisconsin senate).

17Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, “Women in State Legislatures 2018,” accessed 17 August 2018,

18Milton D. Morris, “African American Legislators,” in the Encyclopedia of American Legislative Systems, vol. 1, ed. Joel Silbey (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994): 375–376. For an even wider perspective, see Andrew Young’s remarks in the Congressional Record, citing Voter Education Project figures for the number of blacks holding elective office in 11 Deep South states in 1965 (72) versus 1975 (1,587). See Congressional Record, House 94th Cong., 1st sess. (2 June 1975): 16241–16242.

19The largest recent gains for African-American state legislators have been made in state senates. For more on black state legislators, their effect on their institutions and public policy, their representational patterns, and their peers’ perceptions about them, see Kerry L. Haynie, African American Legislators in the American States (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). The figures from 2015, the most recent year for which racial breakdowns are available, were reported by the National Conference of State Legislators in Karl Kurtz, “Who We Elect,” State Legislatures: The National Conference of State Legislators National Magazine of Policy and Politics, vol. 41, no. 10 (December 2015): 20–25, (accessed 17 August 2018). African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

20Center for American Women in Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, “Facts on Women of Color in Office,” accessed 17 August 2018,

21Minority women comprised a larger percentage of their ethnic groups in the 115th Congress than did the general population of Congresswomen relative to the entire Membership—20.7 percent (112 of 541). Groups of other minority women are much smaller, but of roughly equal proportions to black women: Asian-American women in the 115th Congress accounted for 61 percent of current Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Congress (11 of 18), and Hispanic-American women accounted for about 25 percent of all current Hispanic Americans in Congress (11 of 44). White women accounted for 16.2 percent of all white Members of Congress (70 of 423). For statistics on women in state legislatures through the mid-1990s, see Morris, “African American Legislators”: 376. For current numbers, see Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, “Facts on Women of Color in Office,” accessed 17 August 2018, .