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Deliberate progress: Why we celebrate the Congressional Black Caucus

Evelyn Bethune, Sheila Jackson Lee, James Clyburn
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Evelyn Bethune, front left in yellow, a granddaughter of Mary McLeod Bethune, speaks with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) as members of the Congressional Black Caucus gather around an unveiled statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, the first statue of a Black woman in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, on July 13, 2022.

“Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” — James Bryant Conant

In 1971 a lot of amazing things happened. Among them, Americans ratified the 26th Amendment to our Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18. The New York Times began publishing “The Pentagon Papers.” Disney World opened in Orlando, Fla. A U.S. ban on radio and television cigarette advertisements went into effect. Nasdaq debuted on the New York Stock Exchange. And Charles Manson and three of his followers were found guilty of seven murders.

Into that environment of a shifting America, 13 visionary men and women came together to found the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Imagine what that must have been like.

Now, remember, this was only seven years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It was only six years after the Voting Rights Act gave the federal government enough teeth to end literacy tests, poll taxes and the racist infrastructure that had suppressed the Black vote since the Civil War. 

It was only six years after Selma and Bloody Sunday, and only three years since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis — but these remarkable leaders still stepped forward. What courage that took.

As we look back now, it’s easy to write off progress as inevitable. But the reality is, in politics as in physics, Newton’s “First Law of Motion” holds sway. An object at rest will stay at rest — unless acted upon.

But it wasn’t just action the CBC brought to bear. It was its deliberate action.

History shows us that the CBC led the way on equal pay and affordable housing, though they did that. The CBC has defended our bedrock principle — that no one is above the law — as some of the first members of Congress to call for President Nixon’s impeachment.

The CBC has stood as the “Conscience of the Congress” for more than 50 years, helping stamp out apartheid, protecting homeowners from foreclosure, expanding health care and rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina — they did all that and more.

The fact is, the CBC has never faltered in its mission. Like the turtle, it’s willing to stick its neck out for the sake of progress — for Americans. The caucus members have defined leadership.  

This caucus, led by Chairwoman Joyce Beatty, has 57 members across the House and Senate, one of the largest CBC memberships in history. Three members serve in House leadership positions —  Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee Co-Chair Barbara Lee (Calif.).

Moreover, this CBC claims an additional six full committee chairs: Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Financial Services; Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) on Education and Labor; Congressman David Scott (D-Ga.) on Agriculture; Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) on Foreign Affairs; Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) on Homeland Security; and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) on Science, Space and Technology. 

Thompson chaired the House Special Committee on January 6th, and Clyburn chaired the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.   

What has such leadership delivered? I shouldn’t have to remind anyone, but here goes:  

  • This CBC secured historic investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), along with roughly $100 billion in federal contracts for small, disadvantaged and Black-owned businesses. 
  • This CBC successfully pushed to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants by federal law enforcement. 
  • This CBC supported the Biden administration’s efforts to aggressively combat housing discrimination, protect Black-owned home values, and cap the price of insulin. 
  • Important to note, this CBC led the way to secure $15 billion in dedicated Environmental Protection Agency funding to replace lead water pipes across the nation, and $65 billion to make high-speed broadband accessible and affordable to all Americans.

In order words, these CBC members have put their shoulders to the wheel, driving the president’s agenda across the finish line and helping to pass major legislation such as the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the PACT Act, the most sweeping gun safety law in decades, and the Inflation Reduction Act, a climate, tax and health care package. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list — and definitely not the end, because this CBC will continue to do the work that’s necessary. 

Let’s be clear: The CBC not only has taken up the mantle left by the passing of Rep. John Lewis as “Conscience of the Congress,” but also has stepped forward as the conscience of our country — and our Constitution.

“Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags Biden agenda Charles Manson Congressional Black Caucus conscience of Congress Democratic Party

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