Black lives and the CBC: What happens to a dream deferred?

Black lives and the CBC: What happens to a dream deferred?
© Getty Images

After weeks of protests, African American observers can reasonably conclude that the expenditure of time and resources will result in few substantive changes. And even more dismaying, that the Black Lives Matter rallies have degenerated into a form of street therapy for previously homebound white liberals. So, the aftermath may provide an opportunity to question the purpose of the leading organization of black politics, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

Founded about 50 years ago during a time of expansive political vision, the CBC was the brainchild of Rep. Charles Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.), elected to the House in 1955. He joined Reps. William Dawson (D-Ill) and Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) as the delegation for 22 million black people. He was part of a generation of political thinkers influenced by the 1945 resolution of the fifth Pan-African Congress: “We are determined to be free. We want education. We want the right to earn a decent living, the right to express our thoughts and emotions, to adopt and create forms of beauty. We demand for Black Africa autonomy and independence.”

During the 91st Congress (1969-1971), as the black delegation expanded, Diggs proposed the formation of the Democratic Select Committee (DSC) as a forum for coordinated strategy. In 1971, the DSC became the CBC, with Diggs elected as chairman. He asserted, “Our concerns and obligations as members of Congress do not stop at the boundaries of our districts, our concerns are national and international in scope.”


By 1972, Diggs envisioned the CBC as a vanguard entity for black empowerment. He promoted a “Black Declaration of Independence” and CBC leadership for a political convention in Gary, Ind. At this point, some organization members balked over playing the role of a black national congress. Instead, they elected Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) as chairman and he moved the group under the umbrella of a white liberal coalition. He believed that “if we were to be effective, if we were going to make the meaningful contribution to minority citizens in this country, then it must be as legislators.”

Since then, the CBC has suffered a question of identity and relevance. Its high points were in the 1980s, with bills for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and sanctions against apartheid in South Africa. Today, however, the organization is perhaps most associated with the shrill screeds of Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarMehdi Hasan gets MSNBC Sunday prime-time show Six ways to visualize a divided America Jamaal Bowman's mother dies of COVID-19: 'I share her legacy with all of you' MORE (D-Mich.), symbolic gestures such as removing the statues of Confederate figures from the National Statuary Hall, and legislation seemingly devised to render an appearance of reform such as the bills in response to George Floyd's death.

Political scientist Kenny Whitby, in “Dimensions of Representation and the Congressional Black Caucus,” wrote that the CBC lacked the confidence to speak out on substantive issues and relied too much on a strategy of protest. Moreover, he found that its undue dependence on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party “poses a dilemma for members of the group as players in the world of congressional politics.”

So, how might the organization find its way back to the pathway of black empowerment? It could begin by revisiting the earlier desires for self-determination and Pan-African identification. It is ironic that early organizations with far less resources than the CBC could better speak to the needs of the ordinary folk.

On the question of economic development, for example, there was Booker T. Washington’s program in advanced agriculture and industrial skills. His founding of the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 became a model for leaders of developing societies around the world. It even inspired the Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey to incorporate a self-help economic program in his Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s. Meanwhile, Elijah Poole, a Georgia sharecropper of modest education who took the name Elijah Muhammad, was astute enough to promote economic principles for everyday folk in the book, “Message to the Blackman in America.”


Surely, the CBC could find direction from these humble beginnings and speak to the Black population plainly. It might advocate the practical steps one can take to improve economic standing: live within your means, save as much as possible, nurture a supportive family life, spend your money among yourselves, support Black-owned businesses or non-Black businesses that hire your people, seek to improve health, home, education and community. Such basic lessons of self-improvement may not address the problem of structural racism but they do empower people to help themselves — and offer more chances of rewards than taking to the streets.

In addition, the CBC should question the economic implications of the Democratic Party position on immigration — legal and illegal — for the Black labor force. Members have raised few concerns publicly about the consequences of liberal immigration initiatives. Fair-minded people can see evidence of policies that have undercut the status of Black labor in agriculture, hospitality, restaurants, construction and the civil services. In higher education, Black students encounter objections from immigrants and their children under a right-wing campaign to target affirmative action policies that relate exclusive to Black standing.

Finally, the organization must engage in the quest to build sustainable bases of political power in the states. Clearly, the needs of Black folk are best addressed at the state and local levels. As I’ve suggested, Georgia is the most likely state for the establishment of a stable Black political majority (or plurality in a coalition). With over 30 percent of the population, Black voters have developed a talented political class ready to challenge suspicions of election fraud.

However, the Georgia imperative needs the support of Blacks from other areas to help grow the voter base quickly. The narrow loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race of Democrat Stacey Abrams to Republican Brian Kemp showed that victory is well within reach. With a sustainable political power base, the interests of ordinary folk would be reflected in the major offices, laws and police forces of the state. The CBC can play a role in coordinating a winning strategy for Georgia and other states.

In the 1950s poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes poses the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The poem explores a frustrated vision of a symbolic Black political entity. Today, the CBC faces the same question for the prospect of an autonomous Black political entity — how will it respond?

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”