First of a Three-Part Series
Earlier this year, on Thursday, Jan. 3, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. (CBCF) celebrated a milestone, hosting a ceremonial swearing-in for 55 current and newly-elected Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members of the 116th Congress — the largest in the CBC’s history.
Few seats stood empty during the ceremony held at the Warner Theatre in Northwest, as a changing of the guard ushered in Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) as the newly-elected CBC chair, charged with guiding the group founded by 13 African-American members of the House of Representatives in February 1971.
Yet, despite there being some in the Theatre whose cheers may have suggested that the ceremony gave reason for the continued euphoria and optimism that marked the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, the silence of others may have suggested otherwise.
One could not help but be impressed by the significant number of freshman members who had beaten the odds just months ago in November to secure their seats. As for the largest collective, 55, to ever join the ranks as members of the CBC, that too gave some cause to celebrate and to look to the horizon with hope.
But Bass, mindful of the work she and her colleagues had before them, expressed her concerns.
“We face turbulent waters in this changing political moment,” she said. “As members of the Congressional Black Caucus, we are called to forge a path for the least of these . . . in this blessed land where democracy is not yet finished.”
Such has been the case for Black members of Congress since the days of Reconstruction — ebbs and flows in progress experienced by the nation’s African-American citizens — as Blacks elected to Congress sought to make justice and equality for people of color a reality rather than a promise held at bay for generations yet unborn.
For Rep. George Henry White (R-N.C.), (1852-1918), the lone African-American representative at the dawn of the 20th century, disenfranchisement of Blacks and the proverbial “turning back of the clock” had come to be expected in a political system and nation that overwhelmingly supported the continuation of segregation and the role of Blacks as second-class citizens.
He spoke candidly on the House Floor, confronting Booker T. Washington’s call to work within the segregated system, realizing that with the rash of white supremacy in his home state of North Carolina, campaigning for a third term yielded little promise of success.
As he departed the chamber on March 3, 1901, it would be 28 years before another Black representative set foot in the Capitol.
“This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress,” White said. “But let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come back.”
Over a century later, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), serving her 11th term in the House and considered by many as the “Voice of Reason,” seemed to echo White’s sentiments.
“Fifty-five members represents 22 percent of those elected to Congress and we are proud to serve as the conscience of Congress,” she said.
In this three-part series, we talk with one of the CBC’s senior statesmen from Chicago, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.); an educator-turned-politician, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), dedicated to helping young Black males succeed and assist young school girls from Chibok find the light out of darkness; and Rep. Lucia Kay McBath (D-Ga.), who, since the murder in Florida of her teenaged son, Jordan, to gun violence, has remained determined to upend laws like Stand Your Ground that have given the green light to white men shooting and killing Black boys. Their sole defense, “fear of a Black planet.”
As we look at the legislation sponsored, the day-to-day grind endured and the alternating moments of success and failure experienced by three unique members of Congress, we will also consider how the battlefields on which they fight each day bear similarities to those on which the first Black members of Congress also fought in those short years after the Civil War when Reconstruction politics gave African Americans a taste of governing their own lives.
Ironically, the group of 17 Black Congressmen elected between the years of 1870 and 1887, all came from the Republican Party, all lived in the South and all, like the Radical Republican within whose ranks they were included, remained determined to enact reforms that temporarily reshaped the political landscape in the South during Reconstruction.
Their leaders included men like Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina whose arrival on Capitol Hill in 1870 serves as one of the greatest paradoxes in U.S. history. Consider that just 10 years before, the seats these two African Americans held in Congress had been held by white southern slave owners.
As this series continues, we will attempt to compare the American political and social landscape following that landmark year of 1877, the formal conclusion of Reconstruction, to today’s “Age of Trump.”
Whether white supremacists and alt-right Republicans of the 21st century or ex-Confederates and their Democratic allies in the late 19th and early 20th century, the mission was simple: to snatch power away from Blacks and return them to positions of servitude — second-class citizenry if you will.
Utilizing custom and the legal system, they effectively developed a segregated society — one that took less than 20 years to put in place — and would in short order eliminate African Americans from public office and end their participation in politics.
Is this really a new day? Are we seeing new possibilities? Have we risen in Phoenix-like manner? Or are we marking time to a far too familiar drumbeat for a people who have witnessed more than our fair share of setbacks and heartbreaks — as far back as 1619?
We’d like to hear from you.