Forty years ago, the purpose of a caucus to represent African Americans in Congress seemed clear to its founders: to eradicate racism.
The 13 legislators who formed the Congressional Black Caucus in March 1971 saw themselves as representatives of black people all over the country. Theirs was a role akin to those of civil rights activists. Only they had the bully pulpit of the country’s most powerful legislative body.
The current caucus members, who marked the anniversary of its founding this week, have a mission that is more diffuse, a role that is harder to define and power that has been fully absorbed into the nation’s political system.
For one, the caucus has 43 members from urban and rural districts. It includes one Republican. A handful of its members have been elected from majority-white districts. Eight have faced ethics investigations in the past three years. One of its members is the third-most powerful House Democrat, and a former caucus member sits in the White House.
“There are challenges today that we did not have then,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who chairs the caucus and represents a district that is majority white. “We cannot at all times have all of the members in sync because of the differences we have in our constituencies. But most of the time when we vote our conscience, we end up voting in a bloc.”
The tension with the White House is part of what the caucus sees as its historic role of holding presidents accountable to an agenda that advances African Americans. Still, it creates an awkward tension as the caucus continues to celebrate the ascension of a former member to the White House.
“There is no healthy relationship where two people do not disagree,” Cleaver said. “It has surprised me that journalists become candidates for cardiac arrest when they see or hear an African American disagreeing with an African American. We would become inauthentic if we did not have disagreements with this president.”
It was a political fight with a president that helped to forge the caucus’s reputation 40 years ago. In 1971, it was thought odd that 13 black congressmen, who held seats on none of the powerful committees in Congress, would band together. So when the caucus asked to meet with President Richard M. Nixon, he refused.
In turn, caucus members protested at his State of the Union speech by standing to walk out of the chamber, Conyers said. The caucus made headlines and eventually got Nixon to sit down with its members, which helped establish its credibility.
The CBC, which was founded along with black affinity groups in many professions, has been a support system for its members. In recent years, CBC members have been intensely loyal and defensive of those in its ranks who have faced ethics charges. Rangel, who was censured on the House floor last year, was supported by all but one member of the caucus.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is also drawing support from some caucus members as she faces a stalled investigation into whether she improperly worked to secure federal aid for a bank in which her husband was a large investor. Waters has said she plans to mount a vigorous defense.
In anniversary celebrations, the caucus will highlight legislative markers that include: getting set-asides for minority-owned businesses written into federal law, establishing a federal holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and getting Congress to pass sanctions against South Africa during apartheid.
Other strategies regularly employed by the CBC make noise but do not change policy, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who has studied the caucus and black politics. Each year, the CBC writes an alternative budget — one that receives little attention on Capitol Hill. And its legislative conference is as notable for its social gatherings as for its political science panels.
“The criticism of the CBC is that its work is largely symbolic,” she said. “But we still need the caucus. We still need people to figure out what it takes to reduce the unemployment gap between blacks and whites and to reduce the wealth gap. They are a voice.”