As the nation celebrated the re-election of President Barack Obama last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) promised to continue advancing a progressive agenda that serves the interests and needs of minority communities nationally.
Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Barbara J. Lee (D-Calif.) counted among the estimated 1,100 guests who enjoyed a sumptuous meal, entertainment and dancing into the night at an inaugural gala hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) on Jan. 21. Members basked in the glow of the event and even in the midst of the festivities have eyes cast on the work ahead.
Cleaver, 68, said the relevance of organizations such as the CBC is borne out by the need to respond and act against the constant threat to African Americans, Latinos, the middle class and the poor by those who seek to exploit, marginalize and manipulate them. And he expressed exasperation when asked about those who label the CBC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League as out of touch and null and void.
"That's a very thoughtful statement of someone who's ignorant," he intoned. "It's frustrating that we've won so many victories and people say that the CBC is irrelevant. We helped black farmers and the voting rights extension wouldn't happen but for us. We've provided the margin for every major piece of progressive legislation recently."
"Irrelevant? They're downright wrong," she said. "Where would we be in America? We make sure that there's justice and equal opportunity. Where would we be without the NAACP not fighting to end the death penalty and gun violence?"
They and others cited the CBC's considerable work to blunt the Republicans' voter suppression efforts as proof of their effectiveness.
In the coming days and months, the Obama administration will wrangle with issues such as the debt ceiling, immigration, gun control and finding ways to control spending with the president's Republican opponents poised to continue their spirited opposition to just about every proposal he puts forward.
But on this inauguration Monday, revelry and good cheer was high on the agenda at the black-tie affair.
In the foyer and first and second floors of the Capitol Hilton Hotel – a stone's throw from the White House – a wide cross-section of Washington's political and social elite, businesspeople, members of the clergy and other well-heeled guests stood around conversing, reconnected with old friends, and strolled in and out of a reception room where they noshed on sushi, shrimp, fruits, an assortment of cheeses and sipped various wines and liquor.
Later, during dinner, guests watched a video detailing Obama's road to re-election, the Civil Rights struggle and the symbolic and other ties that Obama's journey had in common with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose national holiday coincided with the 57th inauguration.
"I thought that it was very fitting that the president gave a speech on Martin Luther King's day. It's what King dreamed about," said Ralph B. Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Northwest. "There was excitement and I felt the energy of the president in his speech. It was good to hear him talking about working together and the degree of confidence he expressed. People felt it."
Despite the comity that Obama desires, Everett said it remains to be seen if Republicans and Democrats can find ways to work together for the good of the country.
"I think the jury is still out on whether they'll compromise," he said. "Obama has put out the olive branch. When I worked on the Hill 20 years ago, lawmakers would look at bills and then try to work things out. Now, things have changed."
He cited the fact that members of Congress spend so much time in their districts raising money for the next election cycle that they barely have time to socialize with their Democratic colleagues away from the halls where they fashion legislation.
"Twenty years ago, they socialized, knew each other's families. I don't expect people to agree on all things but the public is tired and wants to see problems fixed. The public is all about them getting together and getting something done."
Cleaver exulted about the inauguration.
"I think this was a fabulous day but part of the greatness of the day was the absence of bad weather which made this a more enjoyable experience," said Cleaver, the CBC's immediate past president. "A lot of people are saying this wasn't as enjoyable as the first inauguration, that if we do anything significant, it's not as good the second time around."
"But the second election is far more important when you are 'a first.' If you fail to make a second term, that makes your enemies see you as a failure."
Cleaver, former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said he visited the White House about a year ago and told staffers there that Obama's run for re-election was of great importance.
"[Winning] put down the marker that this is a legitimate presidency," he said. "For people who're honest, a year ago we had questions. We wondered about African American and Latino turnout and if the power of the Tea Party was as potent as the sounds we heard. All in all, it worked out well."
During his invocation later in the program, Cleaver, a Methodist pastor said "it's only fitting that we come for joyous reflection at the confluence of what President Obama and Dr. King represent. These men have a message of hope, opportunity and equality ..."
Freshman Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) said if the Tea Party has learned anything from the most recent election, the relationship between both parties should be easier.
"With regards to the economy, guns and other things of that nature, they [the public] like what we have to offer," he said. "I think that will lead to having our voices heard more. The CBC and Democratic Congress is in line with public thinking."
Cleaver and his colleagues said the next big battle on the horizon comes in February when the U.S. Supreme Court considers Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
"I'm sure, very confident that everyone in here will be watching," said Shuanise Washington, board chairman of the CBCF to the audience. "The CBC is relentless as it stands guard over gains made by African Americans. It has been speaking out when others have been silent. Ours is a country that needs you more than ever ..."
Lee said she and her colleagues will remain vigilant, adding that she relishes the fight.
Lee, 66, who entered Congress in 1998, said she was encouraged by the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) to become involved in politics.
"We've been fighting all along. It started when we couldn't go to public schools and when we were turned down in restaurants," Lee said. "Regardless of the Tea Party Congress, we'll fight and we'll win, no matter how hard they oppose us. She [Chisholm] said I had to get involved and make a difference and she said I shouldn't go along to get along."