Congressional Black Caucus Reaffirms Its Mission

Forty-years ago, a caucus was born in Congress. Its aim was to advance the cause of African American communities throughout the country. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has become a powerful political force, with a domestic legislative agenda that includes voting rights, healthcare and employment. In 2009, one its members, Barack Obama, was sworn in as United States President. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver and one of the caucus' founders, Congressman John Conyers, about the organization's current role and where it is headed.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

The U.S. housing market is a long way from full recovery and Latinos especially are still feeling the brunt of the foreclosure and housing crisis. We'll talk about a new survey of the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. That's coming up.

But, first, 40 years ago a caucus was born in Congress to advance the cause of African-American communities. The Congressional Black Caucus has become a powerful force with a domestic legislative agenda that includes voting rights, education, health care and employment. CBC members have been deeply involved in the ongoing budget negotiations in Washington, aimed at averting what its chairman calls a lose-lose situation - a government shutdown.

After late-night negotiations Thursday, President Obama said his office was working to avoid furloughing more than 800,000 federal workers, which could in turn slow an economic recovery.

President BARACK OBAMA: For us to go backwards because Washington couldn't get its act together is unacceptable.

KEYES: To talk about the budget negotiations on the broad role of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2011, 40 years after its founding, I'm joined by CBC chairman Emmanuel Cleaver, a representative from Missouri.

I'm also joined by Michigan representative and one of the CBC's founding members, John Conyers. Welcome to you both.

Representative EMMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): Greetings.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): Good to be here with you.

KEYES: Chairman, let me start with you. So much has changed since 1971, particularly in terms of some of the demographics in the districts that African-American members of Congress represent. Some are majority white now, many have a growing Hispanic population. Is it a challenge for you, as the new leader of this organization, to keep the caucus relevant?

Rep. CLEAVER: It's a struggle at all times for the Congressional Black Caucus to be relevant. And that is we have the challenge of making our presence felt and matter. I represent a district that is overwhelmingly white. But I don't think that those of us who represent those districts have to compromise our commitment to justice or equal rights to represent those districts because I think that the statement that we all should celebrate is individuals in those districts, constituents support equal rights and issues surrounding justice.

Now, we don't have the exact cohesiveness of the 13 members who formed the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. But nonetheless, we're still able to work together. We have some unique challenges now because we have a Republican in our midst. But even that we're able to handle.

KEYES: Congressman Conyers, you're one of the founding members of the CBC and you've been talking lately about how the Congressional Black Caucus has expanded its interest to populations outside of the United States. Can you elaborate for us?

Rep. CONYERS: What we do now in addition to representing 21 states plus the District of Columbia and the territory of the Virgin Islands is that we have a diversity that was unheard of. I was the seventh member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

KEYES: Of the original 13.

Rep. CONYERS: Of the original 13. I was number seven. It's pretty easy when, you know, you have a half a dozen or so people working together. When you have 43, you have a corporate organization. But when we started out, it was a simple idea. And that was that we can do a better job of covering the whole Congress if we came together as an organization and officially gave ourselves different areas of responsibility.

KEYES: And I was wondering, chairman, you were talking about the role of the Congressional Black Caucus today at the beginning of this conversation. The organization is primarily made up of Democrats, Republicans took over the House in the midterms. And you have your first Republican member in 14 years. I'm wondering how are you guys all getting along?

Rep. CLEAVER: We've had some challenges, but there's not been anything that we've not been able to handle. But Allen West from Florida has joined. I went to his office and welcomed him. He joined. He's paid his dues. He

KEYES: He's been challenging you guys a bit, though, hasn't he?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, I think that, you know, he too is trying to figure out how to be a part of an organization where he is a minority of one and, you know, there's been absolutely no name calling or screaming at our meetings. It's been a very good situation so far.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking about the Congressional Black Caucus 40 years after it was founded. We're speaking with the chairman of the CBC, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver and one of the Congressional Black Caucus' founding members, Congressman John Conyers.

And Congressman Conyers, in 2009, the caucus of course made history as President Obama was elected, one of your former members. And there have been poll numbers out this week showing that his support is ebbing a bit among African-Americans and Hispanics.

And you yourself have been very outspoken this year about the lack of support. You've said you feel that he's been showing two issues important to African-American communities. What would you like to see the White House and the president do differently?

Rep. CONYERS: I want to see the president leading the charge in the entire government and that we get behind some legislation that produces jobs. And I'm not talking tax cuts for corporations and all that business. I'm talking about going back to the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 in which Senator Hubert Humphrey and Gus Hawkins, then the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the federal government can hire people when unemployment gets too high. And that's what we've got legislation for. And I want to get the president to speak out on it.

Rep. CLEAVER: Let me just add onto what Chairman Conyers just said. The Congressional Black Caucus has opposed policies by every president since 1971, whether they were a Republican or a Democrat, it's our agenda that's important. And the insignia of a healthy relationship is the ability to disagree. And I think that it is woefully wrong for anyone to assume that something is wrong if we have a disagreement with the president.

KEYES: I've got a question about the budget crisis at hand, chairman. I know that the CBC has been working with the Congressional Hispanic and the Congressional Asian Pacific-American Caucuses on the negotiations. And you all earlier this week came out against the Republican proposal. Talk to us about some of your recommendations on which programs ought to be cut or the reasons why some shouldn't be.

Rep. CLEAVER: The budget that many people are familiar with now is a nervous breakdown on paper. It is one of the most frightening things I've seen. And I think that we need to understand what's going on and that is this. We are going to give - if these budgets are approved, $850 billion in tax cuts to the richest people in the country while cutting Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, LIHEAP, that's energy assistance to low-income people, Head Start, a program that works. And it goes on and on and on.

So what we're essentially doing is making life a lot easier for the wealthy and a lot worse for the poor. And keep in mind that 10 percent of the U.S. earned 90 percent of the economic growth last year, and that is sinful.

KEYES: Congressman Conyers, what are you hearing from your constituents about programs that would disproportionately hurt your community?

Rep. CONYERS: Many folks have kind of given up on the government. I had a young fellow - I was collecting petitions from my last election - he said, greetings, Congressman Conyers, I'll sign your petition, but there's only one problem - I don't vote.

You know, there was so much euphoria over electing Barack Obama. There were a lot of young people that participated that made differences in many of the states in which he ran. Minority communities across the country came out in 95 percentile or higher, and that's ebbing away. You know, it's easier to be a candidate than it is to be the president of the most powerful nation on Earth with all the decisions and competing interests to have to deal with.

KEYES: Next month is going to mark the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides that battled segregation on the buses and in the terminals in the South. And I just spoke recently to some of the Freedom Riders and I asked if they felt that there still is a civil rights struggle in 2011. And we have a clip from Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks. Here's what she had to say.

Ms. CATHERINE BURKS-BROOKS (Freedom Rider): Oh, yes, yes. It has changed. But of course we still have a struggle. The cities are dead.

KEYES: Freedom rider Catherine Burks-Brooks reflecting on the current civil rights issues affecting the nation.

Chairman Cleaver, looking at the next two years, what are the priorities are most important to the Congressional Black Caucus?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, first and foremost, we've got to create jobs. Black unemployment is 15.5 percent. That is not to be tolerated in a country like this. We need to put in place a program where small companies, minority companies, can hire 10 or 15 people and pay only 20 percent of their salaries. And if we can do that for two years, then the economy should get a little healthier. And we're going to have to get a better quality of education.

And that's why I'm so angry over the proposal to cut the Pell Grants. Our goal as the CBC is to react circumspectively and not melodramatically, but at the same time we're going to have to push both Democrats and Republicans to give what the American public wants, and that's jobs and education.

KEYES: So your response to those who would suggest that an organization like the Congressional Black Caucus, is no longer needed in 2011...

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, they've been drinking. I think we are not in a post-racial America. Things have changed dramatically. I represent a predominantly white district. So that has to be a sign that we're getting better. We have a black person in the White House. But make no mistake, there is a lot of bigotry out here. And it is impacting the lives of people, many of whom are listening to this broadcast.

KEYES: Congressman Conyers?

Rep. CONYERS: We've got the experience in the Congressional Black Caucus of such civil rights leaders as Andrew Young, Walter Fauntroy, and still with us, John Lewis. These folks aren't reading about it or writing papers about it -they were in it. And so the struggle goes on, but from a longer perspective, we've come out of a country that created the greatest democratic constitution in history. But it countenanced slavery. We almost tore the country up deciding to end slavery in this country. And so the vestiges of it, sociologically and psychologically, still persist.

KEYES: Gentlemen, we've got to leave it there. We've been speaking about the Congressional Black Caucus and its 40 years of history. We were joined by CBC Chairman Emmanuel Cleaver, who represents parts of Missouri, including Kansas City, where there are really good steaks. And we were also joined by one of the group's founding members, Congressman John Conyers, who represents parts of Detroit, Michigan. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us from Capitol Hill.

Rep. CLEAVER: Good to be with you.

Rep. CONYERS: It was a pleasure.

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