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The Congressional Black Caucus’ 1971 State of the Union Boycott

January 22, 1971
The Congressional Black Caucus’ 1971 State of the Union Boycott Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration Serving 25 years in the House of Representatives, Charles Cole Diggs, Jr. of Michigan became the first Black chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia.
On this day, the Democratic Select Committee (DSC), forerunner of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) composed of the 12 Black Representatives serving at the start of the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), boycotted President Richard M. Nixon’s State of the Union Address. The decision to protest the President’s Annual Message came after President Nixon repeatedly refused to meet with the Representatives to discuss the administration’s policy agenda. The DSC had formed two years earlier at the opening of the 91st Congress (1969–1971) to facilitate and coordinate legislative action among African-American legislators. “We feel we can provide the kind of united voice that is needed,” Representative William Lacy Clay Sr. of Missouri said about their shared legislative agenda. “We are the logical group to assume national leadership among the 1,400 black elected officials” serving in federal, state, and local office across the country. After being slighted by the White House for nearly a year, the DSC wrote an open letter to the President decrying his “consistent refusal to hear the pleas and concerns of black Americans” and informing him that they would not attend his State of the Union Address. It was the first organized boycott of a State of the Union Address by Members of the House. Following widespread press coverage of the boycott, Nixon agreed to meet with the lawmakers, who by then had renamed the DSC and become the CBC. During the March 25 meeting between Nixon and the CBC, the caucus provided the President with a list of 61 policy recommendations, including the creation of a national job programs, the appointment of more African-American judges, criminal justice reforms, and stronger opposition to South Africa’s apartheid government. “Our people are no longer asking for equality as a rhetorical promise,” CBC chair Charles Coles Diggs Jr. of Michigan 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.” Although the White House eventually released a 115-page response, the report disappointed the CBC, which felt it did little other than rehash the President’s existing agenda. Nevertheless, the unified response in 1971 would continue to guide the CBC to use its influence in Congress to shape policy and secure powerful committee assignments for Black lawmakers.

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