As black lawmakers entered the House of Representatives in increasing numbers during the 1960s, they sought a formal organization. A predecessor of the caucus, the Democratic Select Committee, was founded in 1969 — and its chairman, Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, subsequently earned a spot on President Richard Nixon's Enemies List. The group was renamed the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 with 13 founding members, including Shirley Chisholm, William Lacy Clay, John Conyers and Charles Rangel.
Captions by Cynthia Gordy
After being denied a meeting with President Nixon, all 13 CBC members boycotted his State of the Union address. The bad publicity compelled him to agree to a meeting two months later, at which the caucus presented 60 recommendations on issues ranging from aid for minority businesses to ending the Vietnam conflict. Nixon responded to their concerns with a 115-page report, yet failed to introduce actual policy. To raise awareness of problems affecting African Americans, the CBC began sponsoring hearings and conferences around the country.
Among the groundbreaking congressional hearings on race sponsored by the CBC was a two-day examination of racism in the field of mass media. According to a 1972 edition of Jet magazine, some 23 workers from print, television and radio testified that African Americans were "grossly excluded, distorted, mishandled and exploited by the white-controlled news media." The CBC, in turn, set up a watchdog committee to document unfair media practices.
Caucus members met with President Jimmy Carter to discuss the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which set requirements for the federal government to ensure full employment, growth in production, price stability, and balance of trade and budget. The bill was drafted in response to rising unemployment and inflation, which triggered fear of a recession. When Carter signed it into law that October, he credited the CBC for its staunch advocacy.
After participating in a protest against a proposed landfill in the black community of Afton, N.C., Washington, D.C., Delegate Walter Fauntroy requested that the U.S. General Accounting Office conduct a study of hazardous-waste facilities in the South. The following year, the GAO published a report showing that 75 percent of commercial hazardous-waste sites were located in African-American communities, drawing federal attention for the first time to the issue of environmental racism.
President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday into law — 15 years after the bill was first introduced by Michigan Rep. John Conyers. Despite constant resistance from other members of Congress — including Sens. John McCain and Jesse Helms — year after year, the CBC advocated, debated and sponsored legislation for the creation of the holiday until it finally built enough support for passage.
Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which called for a trade embargo against South Africa and immediate divestment by American corporations. It also stated preconditions for lifting the sanctions, including the release of all political prisoners (Nelson Mandela being among them). Introduced by CBC member Rep. William Gray of Pennsylvania, it was one of 15 apartheid-related bills sponsored by the caucus since 1972. President Reagan tried to veto the legislation, but he was overruled.
The Voting Rights Language Assistance Act was passed thanks to the co-sponsorship of Missouri Rep. Alan Wheat and other CBC members. The law requires bilingual voting materials and expands coverage to counties with more than 10,000 voting-age citizens who are not proficient in English.
Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the "Motor Voter" bill. Originally introduced by Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Alan Cranston, the law makes voter registration more uniform and accessible, especially for low-income voters, by allowing registration by mail and through driver's license bureaus, welfare offices and unemployment agencies.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, all 42 House CBC members introduced a bill to provide for the region's recovery and the reunion of devastated families. Although the legislation didn't gain enough votes, over the years CBC members continued pushing Katrina- and Rita-focused bills, finally securing recovery funds in the 2007 Iraq supplemental bill, which included $6.4 billion for Gulf recovery.
Due in part to CBC rallying efforts, the House voted to renew expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which require federal oversight of election procedure in states with a history of discriminatory practices. The bill initially stalled in the House, but it eventually drew enough support to get signed into law by President George W. Bush.
President Bush signed into law an increase of the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over two years, a jump from the previous amount of $5.15. All 40 members of the CBC voted in support of the bill.
The House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (pdf), a major energy bill. The legislation included a CBC-sponsored provision requiring that green construction jobs established in low-income communities go to local workers. The bill ultimately stalled in the Senate, but had it passed, it would have marked the first time that a local hiring provision was included in federal law.
President Obama signed the 2010 omnibus spending bill, which included a provision to overturn the federal ban on needle-exchange programs. Though highly controversial, the programs are a proven way to prevent HIV infection by providing drug users with clean needles from clinics and hospitals in exchange for used needles. Caucus members — particularly California Rep. Barbara Lee and Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton — had long championed overturning the federal ban.
For a decade, the CBC had struggled to pass a bill reducing the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. Although the harsher penalty was originally supported by black lawmakers concerned about the 1980s crack epidemic, it later became recognized as one of the government's most racially unequal laws. In August 2010, President Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act (pdf), introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, reducing the power-to-crack sentencing ratio to 18-to-1.
When the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, it included several provisions that originated with CBC members: expanded funding for community health centers in underserved areas, health coverage for residents of U.S. territories like the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, training and hiring programs targeting health professionals from diverse ethnic backgrounds — and an attached reconciliation bill that funneled $2.55 billion to historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.
In May 2010, Obama signed a bill instructing the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other major multinational institutions to cancel Haiti's debt to the United States (pdf). The bill was introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters of California and supported by a CBC advocacy campaign. As a result, on Sept. 30, $447 million of Haiti's debt was officially cancelled.