The two most-senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus—Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), 85, and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), 84—were honored at the CBC Foundation’s annual Avoice Heritage Celebration Dinner in Washington, D.C., Tuesday night.
Both were presented with the Distinguished Pioneer Award as founding members of the CBC. Conyers came to Congress in 1965 and Rangel in 1971—the two are now the most-senior members of the current Congress.
The work of their combined 94 years in the House of Representatives has contributed to the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the end of apartheid and $300 million in federal grants for Detroit in 2013 alone. Conyers has led a continuous push against racial profiling and overincarceration, as well as for criminal-justice reform.
Both Rangel and Conyers were two of only 11 black members who voted against the Clinton crime bill in 1994, legislation that would lead to a spike in incarceration rates—particularly in black communities.
Conyers and Rangel arrived in Washington at a time when there were only 13 black members of Congress. There are now 48, the most in U.S. history.
In a place where seniority is king and longevity means power, Conyers and Rangel have been able to navigate the complexities of moving legislation. In a gridlocked Congress where little gets done, that skill is even more valuable.
As a member of the Ways and Means Committee in the 1980s, Rangel pushed through the low-income-housing tax credit, increasing affordable-housing opportunities, and passed the “Rangel Amendment,” ending tax breaks for corporations that did business with South Africa—a policy that would help bring down the country’s apartheid regime.
Last year Rangel was named by TrackBill as the most-productive member of Congress in terms of the number of bills passed, passing 31 pieces of legislation (pdf) he sponsored.
But Rangel didn’t talk about legislative work when he took the CBC Foundation stage to accept his award. He talked of only one person: his wife, Alma.
“When we talk about not having a bad day since, it’s because all of my life has been spent cherishing the moment, knowing a person over 57 years—and I’ve been married to her for over 50 years. Whatever praise I was able to receive, she was able to pick a guy in law school who didn’t have a job,” Rangel said of his wife, seated in the first row.
“My wife and I have been so blessed by being partners, you can’t do these things without the support and someone to guide you,” he added.
Conyers spoke of the people he and Rangel had seen “come and go” over four decades in politics, and focused on three: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.
“I’ve been moved by just a few people. The first one is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He moved me to a depth that I never dreamed of before,” said Conyers, who introduced legislation to make King’s birthday a holiday on April 8, 1968, four days after he was killed.
Another civil rights icon, Parks, worked on Conyers’ first congressional campaign in 1964. She would be Conyers’ first staff hire and worked in his office until 1988, when she retired.
Many speculate that Rangel is serious about retiring from Congress at the end of 2016. But for now their colleagues are continuing to enjoy the institutional knowledge of both of the two oldest members of the caucus.
The Avoice virtual library project seeks to catalog the history of African Americans in Congress, and the annual dinner is in its sixth year, honoring activists, elected officials and corporate citizens that have been champions of diversity.