A legislative voice for African Americans, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) traces its history back to the important civil rights victories of the 1960s. Among these victories was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made illegal the discriminatory practices designed to limit African-American access to the polls. The impact of this legislation was immediate. During the 1960s, African-American representation in Congress increased from four representatives during the 86th Congress (1959-1961) to ten representatives during the 91st Congress (1969-1971). This significant increase in the number of African Americans in the House of Representatives necessitated formal organization. Members recognized the fact that a black caucus in Congress would provide them with greater visibility and greater political leverage on the issues and concerns of the African-American community.
Founded on January 4, 1969, the group was known initially as the Democratic Select Committee. The name was formally changed to the Congressional Black Caucus following a motion by Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York in February 1971. Representative Charles C. Diggs, Jr. was elected as the first Chair of the CBC. Founding members included Representatives Shirley A. Chisholm (D-NY), William L. Clay (D-MO), George W. Collins (D-IL), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Ronald V. Dellums (D-CA), Charles C. Diggs, Jr. (D-MI), Augustus F. Hawkins (D-CA), Ralph H. Metcalfe (D-IL), Parren J. Mitchell (D-MD), Robert N.C. Nix, Sr. (D-PA), Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), Louis Stokes (D-OH), and Washington, D.C. delegate Walter E. Fauntroy.
The CBC is focused on the concerns of African Americans, and its priority is also the human and civil rights of all underrepresented people. Although CBC members have been predominantly members of the Democratic party, the founding members envisioned a non-partisan organization that could “promote the public welfare through legislation designed to meet the needs of millions of neglected citizens.” The CBC boasts a long history of bipartisan collaboration. In particular, the CBC had significant collaboration with Republicans, including Senator Edward W. Brooke and Congressman Gary A. Franks.
In March 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus received its first national recognition when CBC members met with President Richard Nixon and presented him with a list of sixty recommendations for governmental action. The list reflected the CBC’s commitment to both domestic and international issues. Since that time, the CBC’s legislative initiatives have ranged from equal employment opportunities and welfare reform to anti-apartheid in South Africa. The Congressional Black Caucus has demonstrated its commitment to the diverse concerns of the African-American community through its tireless efforts.
One of the key domestic issues that the CBC remains involved with is the issue of voting rights. Over the years, the CBC has fought to eliminate the barriers keeping minorities and other underrepresented groups from the polls. Members have introduced several bills aimed to protect voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution by eliminating certain barriers to participation in federal elections and inappropriate registration procedures. In recent years, CBC members have rallied to protect the Extensions of the Voting Rights Act.
Another important accomplishment of the CBC has been the establishment of a holiday to honor slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. The CBC led the movement to bring about the King Holiday by participating in demonstrations and sponsoring legislation in support of the holiday. Members of the CBC also organized petition campaigns in their communities. Ultimately, their efforts pressured Congress into action. On November 3, 1983, fifteen years after Rep. Conyers first introduced the bill, President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Bill into law.
The CBC has also been engaged in a number of international issues. Since the CBC’s inception, apartheid in South Africa was a major policy concern. CBC members introduced several bills over the course of the 1970s and 1980s that sought to pressure South Africa into abandoning the apartheid system and other racist practices. The CBC was also involved in the establishment of TransAfrica, a foreign policy advocacy organization designed to force attention on issues concerning Africa and the Caribbean. Their efforts led to a heightened awareness among Americans of the atrocities of apartheid. The movement to divest in South Africa, which was spearheaded by the CBC and TransAfrica, forced scores of universities and businesses to withdraw investment dollars from South Africa.
In 1986, CBC members were instrumental in getting a bill known as The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 passed in Congress. The bill called for sanctions against South Africa and stated preconditions for lifting the sanctions, including the release of all political prisoners. Support for the bill was so strong that it withstood a veto by President Reagan—which represented the first instance in the 20th century that a president had a foreign policy veto overridden. The Anti-Apartheid Act triggered sanctions in Europe and Japan and the loss of confidence by the global banking community in the economy of South Africa.
When the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) denied Haiti access to loans for development assistance, CBC members rallied the U.S. government and the international financial institutions to grant basic humanitarian assistance to Haiti. Members introduced legislation aimed at requiring the United States to use its voice, vote and influence to urge the Inter-American Development Bank to immediately resume lending to Haiti, disperse all previously-approved loans, assist the nation with the payment of its existing debts and consider providing Haiti debt relief. In 2004, CBC members spoke out against the circumstances surrounding the ousting of Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. CBC members expressed their concern that the Bush administration was refusing to preserve the democratically-elected government in Haiti.
Today the Congressional Black Caucus continues to be a legislative voice for African Americans and other underrepresented people. Their efforts to affect positive change in domestic and international policy have helped to keep the concerns of the African-American community at the forefront of U.S. policy.