The Congressional Black Caucus is 40 years old this year, and with one of its former members in the White House, members are feeling more powerful than ever. As the CBC gathers in Washington for its annual legislative conference weekend—the first since Barack Obama was elected president—some members say the CBC, with a record 43 members, may be more influential now than at anytime in its history.
“We have more chairmen, more subcommittee chairmen, more seniority and the president—so one has to say we have more influence on national policy,” says Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
For most of its history, the CBC represented the embodiment of mainstream black political power. These were the one or two or three dozen black men and women who were able to succeed in mainstream American politics in the most traditional way; they were elected to Congress. Initially, they were activists, children of the civil rights movement. Later they were savvy politicians who mastered the rules of the game. Later they were Barack Obama.
Before the election of Obama, the CBC’s annual legislative weekend was the most potent show of black political force in the United States. It was an opportunity for black members of Congress to lay out an agenda of what was important to black communities all across the country. It was a chance to remind people that there was an important coalition of influential black leaders. With Obama's election, such reminders seem less necessary. Obama's history with the CBC is important to the moment. After all, his relationship with it began as soon as he came to Washington. The president was the only member of the Senate in the CBC from 2005 until he resigned from the Senate last November after his election. During those years, says Rep. James Clyburn, the House Democratic Whip, Obama was a regular participant in the legislative agenda of the caucus.
“He'd be our resource as to what he thought would be salable in the Senate,” he says, adding, however, that Obama “never tried to show any kind of a leadership role as far as the CBC agenda.”
At the CBC’s first official session with the president last winter, Chairwoman Barbara Lee called the open meeting on the stimulus package, job creation and the Democratic legislative agenda “a historic moment for the Congressional Black Caucus.”
“This is a new era for our communities, our congressional districts and for the country,” said Rep. Charles Rangel. He compared their early March meeting with Obama to the CBC's long wait for President Richard Nixon to recognize them. He was in the White House when the CBC was formed. “We’re very excited about the opportunity.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Eboni Farmer is an intern for The Root and online editor for The Hilltop.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.