The role of public advocate is one that the CBC has openly embraced, whether on the grassroots level, or on the House floor. On the issues of prison reform, capital punishment, juvenile justice, drug reform, and police brutality, the CBC has remained especially vigilant, publicly speaking out against the ills and shortcomings of the criminal justice system. In the early 1970s, at the height of numerous reports of prisoner mistreatment, CBC members Ronald Dellums (CA) and Charles Rangel (NY) emerged as the leaders in the effort to secure better treatment for prisoners across the country. Rep. Rangel accomplished this through his service and leadership on the Committee on the Judiciary from 1971 to 1974, and his work on the Select Committee on Crime from 1971 to 1973. Former Rep. Dellums acted on the grassroots level, not merely introducing and co-sponsoring legislation on prisoner reform, but through giving a voice to the prisoners through the media and the general public. Between 1971 and 1975, Dellums authored a series of letters, articles, and gave TV program addresses and public appearances on the mistreatment of prisoners. Up to the early 1980s, Rep. Dellums remained a vocal advocate through legislation, as he introduced and co-sponsored several bills, not the least of which was the Omnibus Penal Reform Act.
On the issue of capital punishment, the CBC has assumed the role of public advocate to challenge the disproportionate incidents of black inmates receiving death sentences. In the case of Warren McCleskey in 1986 in Georgia, for example, the CBC did just that, moving outside the policy arena to challenge the justness of Mr. McCleskey’s death sentence. To the CBC, Mr. McCleskey, an African-American man and death row inmate, represented other black men in prisons across the country who were disproportionately being sentenced to death more so than their white counterparts. The CBC wrote an amicus brief with civil rights organizations, supporting the argument that “unequal application of criminal statutes on the basis of race [was] a violation of the Constitution,” and that proving racial disparity in death sentencing was enough to consider reversing death penalty judgment. A similar situation emerged in 1988 in Rep. Mickey Leland’s district of Texas, in which Clarence Lee Brandley, an African-American man, was placed on death row, and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Many of his supporters determined the charges against him to be a “racist frame-up,” including Rep. Leland who spoke out against the judgment. Rep. Leland appeared in newspapers across his district, pledging to introduce a bill that would delay Mr. Brandley’s execution until he could be fairly tried. The case of Troy Davis in 2011 followed a pattern similar to the cases of Mr. McCleskey and Mr. Brandley, and garnered a similar response by members of the CBC. Rep. John Lewis (GA) spearheaded the effort to write letters, spoke publicly, and pleaded on Mr. Davis’ behalf for sentencing reconsideration in light of substantial holes in his case.
The CBC’s response to public outcry was not limited to matters of prison reform and capital punishment. On countless occasions, members of the CBC have heeded the call to other matters such as drug reform and juvenile justice. The story of Kemba Smith garnered national attention in the 1990s, but for members of CBC, it was especially important because it justified the need for post-Reagan drug reform. It brought to light the shortcomings of mandatory minimum sentencing outlined in President Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and its potentially damaging effects on segments of American society. Kemba Smith, an African-American female and student at Hampton University at the time of her conviction, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for her association with her boyfriend at the time, who was a drug dealer and leader of a crack cocaine ring. Tireless efforts on behalf of Smith’s family, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, and a number of other organizations led to Smith being pardoned by President Clinton in 2000. During the years fighting for her release, Rep. Maxine Waters became one of the strongest advocates for Smith, both within the CBC and outside of it. Other CBC members joined her in the fight, however, including Reps. Bobby Scott and John Conyers, who in 1997 joined Rep. Waters in denouncing mandatory minimum sentencing policies at a Free Kemba Smith rally in Washington, D.C.
In recent history, the case of six young black men, also known as the “Jena Six” in Jena, Louisiana, not only caught the attention of several members of the CBC, but galvanized the public on the issue of juvenile justice. Following a series of what many people considered racially charged incidents at Jena High School, six black teenagers, ranging between the ages of 14 and 18 at the time, assaulted Justin Barker, a white student at the same high school, and were convicted and charged with offenses that many argued were too severe and racially discriminatory. The Jena Six were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder and one of the teenagers in particular, Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of conviction, was charged as an adult for aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. These charges were ultimately reduced, but the initial charges and the public outcry were enough to prompt CBC members to action. Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, John Conyers, and Carolyn Kilpatrick were especially vocal on the issue. In 2007, Rep. Conyers held hearings and organized a forum on the Jena Six at CBCF’s Annual Legislative Conference that year in which both Rep. Jackson-Lee and Elijah Cummings participated. Later that year, Rep. Jackson-Lee wrote a letter to then Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, which called on the governor to pardon Mychal Bell and the five other teenagers of the Jena Six. Reps. Jackson-Lee, Conyers, and Kilpatrick held a press conference with Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in 2008 after the verdict had been reached for the teenagers.
Beyond advocacy outside the walls of Congress, the leadership roles of CBC members in key committees within the legislative arena has also underscored the role of CBC members as advocates. Drug reform was a primary issue for which the advocacy of members of the CBC was critical to keeping the issue at the center of legislative considerations. Rep. Charles Rangel (NY) played a crucial role to that end through his leadership as Chair of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control from, a position he held from the early 1970s to 1993. During that time, Rep. Rangel (NY) authored a series of articles and reports, but most notably, offered a series of testimonies, speeches, and television interviews of the need for drug reform that would not only work to reduce incidents of abuse in the black community, but across the nation. On the issue of crime in general, Rep. Crockett (MI) also embraced the role as advocate while serving on the House Judiciary Committee during his tenure in office. During this time, he remained vocal on a number of crime-related issues, not the least of which was crime committed against the black elderly.
Many members of the CBC have also been vocal advocates on issues surrounding police brutality and racial profiling. In 1991, when the severe beating of Rodney King following a police chase was caught on videotape, the CBC was outraged and according to an article that year in the New York Times, urged the Justice Department to conduct a “wide-range inquiry into police brutality in the city.” Racial profiling has taken center stage most recently, through the events surrounding the tragic and untimely death of Trayvon Martin, a young African-American teenager from Sanford, Florida, who was shot and killed in the suburban neighborhood where his father resided on reason of “suspicion”, despite only being found with possession of a bag of skittles, iced tea, and a hoodie. This event has triggered a profound public outcry for justice across the nation, but it has not been without the support and advocacy work of members of the CBC. The CBC most recently unveiled a resolution that not only honored the life of Trayvon Martin, but called for a repeal of “Stand Your Ground” gun laws in every state, which allows a person to use force in self-defense if there is reasonable belief of a threat. In a stand of solidarity, Rep. Bobby Rush (IL) embraced the role of advocate and made headlines for wearing a hoodie sweatshirt during his statement on Trayvon Martin.
The role of advocacy has taken many different forms within the CBC, but in the area of criminal justice, it is a role the CBC has been consistently embraced with seriousness and intention. Despite the outcomes on the particular issues, the CBC has recognized the value in engaging with and responding to the voices of the masses in a very direct and vocal way.