Background and Precongressional Experience

Like earlier generations of black legislators on Capitol Hill, the 86 African Americans who entered Congress in the period from 1971 through 2007 generally ranked far above the norm in terms of education, professional attainment, and civic achievements. Successful careers in state government propelled the large numbers of African Americans elected to Congress in the 1990s.4 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 professional elites. They were exceedingly well educated, as was the general congressional membership, and their level of education ranked far above the statistical averages for the general U.S. population.5 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.6

Civil Rights Activism

Ronald Dellums/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_dellums_ron_reflective_nara.xml Image courtesy of Office of the Clerk, 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.
A defining precongressional experience for many 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 R. Lewis of Georgia (elected in 1986) cofounded 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, and helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Andrew Young of Georgia (elected in 1972) was a principal aide to 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 (elected the District of Columbia’s Delegate in 1971) honed his skills as a coalition-builder.

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 militant stance (such as Stokely Carmichael, who succeeded Lewis as head of SNCC).7 Out of this schism came the Black Power movement and the more radical black nationalist factions of the latter 1960s, such as the Black Panthers. “Black Power” had different meanings within the movement. For Carmichael’s cohorts, Black Power expressed frustration and rage with intransigent racism and advocated black separatism and the use of violence, if necessary, to achieve a measure of independence for African Americans. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, who served in the House in 1966 when Carmichael first employed the term, 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.”8 John Lewis, who resigned from SNCC in July 1966 because of its militancy and confrontational 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 added that as articulated by Carmichael, Black Power “tended to create a schism, both within the movement itself and between the races. It drove people apart rather than brought them together.”9

Ronald Dellums of California, who represented an Oakland–Berkeley House district, found himself at the center of a virtual war between Black Panthers and the Oakland police force in the late 1960s. “The Black Panther Party for Self Defense” had been formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to counter what both men believed to be a long history of police abuses against African-American citizens of Oakland. 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, probably avoiding bloodshed. 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.”10 A former member of the Chicago Black Panthers, Bobby Rush, who quit the group in the early 1970s because of its violent tactics, served a decade as a Chicago city councilman before winning election to the U.S. House in 1992.

Prior Elective Office

This generation’s elective experience differed significantly from that of previous generations. The vast majority of African Americans who entered Congress after 1970 held prior elective office (68 of the 86, or 79 percent), with a substantial increase in the numbers with service in state legislatures. Half (43) of the African Americans elected to Congress from 1971 through 2007 served as state legislators, 19 in the lower chamber, six in the upper chamber, and 18 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).11 This development, perhaps more than any other precongressional characteristic, brought black Members of Congress into near-total congruence with the experiential background of the general population of House and Senate membership.

Barbara Jordan/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_4_jordan_barbara_meeting_lbj_1968_lbj_library-767.xml Photograph by Yoichi R. Okamoto, Courtesy of the LBJ Library 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 drove diversity trends in the state legislatures 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—where the largest number of blacks lived and where voting rights legislation and court decisions provided greater access to the ballot. From 32 seats in 1970, blacks held 226 in 1992—a gain of 894 percent.12 These trends have continued, albeit more slowly, in the last 15 years. According to 2003 figures from the National Conference of State Legislators, 595 African Americans held seats in the upper or lower house in state legislatures, accounting for 8.1 percent of all (7,382) state legislators nationwide.13

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. As with other women in Congress, legislative experience at the state level provided a vehicle for election to the U.S. Congress. In 1971, there was only one African-American woman in Congress—Shirley Chisholm of New York—among a total of 14 blacks in Congress. By late 2007, African-American women accounted for nearly one-third of all the sitting black Members of Congress.14

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. Fifteen served on city councils, and five were elected county council members or commissioners. Four persons 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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4For 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.

5Ninety-one percent (78 individuals) held an undergraduate degree; three others took coursework at the college level. Additionally, 66 percent (57 individuals) earned a graduate degree—11 of these held multiple graduate degrees. Nearly 40 percent of all the individuals (34) from this era held law degrees. African-American Members also held 20 master’s degrees, four MBA degrees, and three MSW degrees. Three individuals were Ph.Ds, and two were MDs. While in line with the educational backgrounds of the general congressional membership, African-American Members of Congress far outstripped the education rates for the general U.S. population. As recently as 1997, just 16.3 percent of all black males and 16.5 percent of all black females graduated from college (compared with 30.1 percent of white men and 26.6 percent of white women, respectively). See 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, Volume 2: Work and Welfare, Susan B. Carter et al., eds. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 469–470.

6Reflecting 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 2007, slightly more than 17 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 46.4 years. Men (61 individuals) won their first elections at an average age of 45 years; women (25 individuals) averaged 50 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.

7For 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); and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

8Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991): 28.

9John Lewis with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998): 371.

10Ronald 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.

11At 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). President Pro Tempore is a Senator who serves as presiding officer of the chamber when the Vice President is absent. (The president pro tempore position is also used in state senates, in the absence of the Lieutenant Governor.) Latin for “the time being” or “temporarily,” the president pro tempore not only presides over the U.S. Senate but is also empowered to swear in Senators and sign legislation. After World War II, the Senate began electing the senior member of the majority party to this position. This person may hold the office until retirement or until the party loses its majority status. Since 1947, the position is third in line for the presidency, behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. The House Member appointed to preside over chamber activities when the Speaker of the House is absent is called the Speaker pro tempore. In accordance with House Rules, the Speaker pro tempore typically serves for only one legislative day at a time.

12Milton D. Morris, “African American Legislators,” in the Encyclopedia of American Legislative Systems, Volume 1, Joel Silbey ed. (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.

13The 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 2003, the most recent year for which racial breakdowns are available, are reported in “Numbers of African-American Legislators, 2003,” National Conference of State Legislators: (accessed 19 November 2007).

14Minority women comprise a larger percentage of their ethnic group in Congress than does the general population of Congresswomen relative to the entire Membership—16.6 percent (90 of 540). Groups of other minority women are much smaller, but of roughly equal proportions to black women: Asian-American women in the 110th Congress accounted for a third of current Asian Americans in Congress (2 of 6), and Hispanic-American women accounted for about 29 percent of all current Hispanic Americans in Congress (7 of 24). Caucasian women accounted for about 14 percent of all Caucasians in Congress (67 of 467). For statistics on women in state legislatures through the mid-1990s, see Morris, “African American Legislators”: 376.