In September 1970, my family moved to Cleveland. My father became the rector of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church and my mother was a teacher in the Cleveland Public School System. Dad was the rector of Saint Andrew’s for 28 of his 38 years in the active ministry.
It is no understatement to say that Saint Andrew’s significantly influenced my career trajectory of public service in general, and work with the Congressional Black Caucus CBC) in particular. As the rector of the largest Black Episcopal church in Cleveland, I was exposed to numerous visiting elected officials and political candidates.
At the age of 8, the first political giant I met was one of the founders of the CBC, the late Rep. Louis Stokes. In addition to being a founder of the CBC, Stokes was the first Black Congressman elected in Ohio and served with distinction from 1969 to 1993. Rep. Stokes served as chairman of the CBC and was the first Black to chair the House Committee on Intelligence and sit on the House Committee on Appropriations. He also chaired the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which investigated the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
These days, I am in the Rayburn House Office Building meeting with members of the CBC or staffers several times a month. Without exception, each time I enter I feel the same excitement I did in June 1980 when I first entered as an eager, albeit nervous, 16-year-old reporting to work as a summer intern for Rep. Stokes. That summer, I fell in love with Capitol Hill and knew my professional calling.
In September 1983, I returned to the Hill as a full-time employee for Stokes. Later, I was honored to also work for two other giants of the CBC: the late Rep. William H. Gray III and former Rep. Charles Rangel, also a co-founder of the CBC.
Last Thursday, I was in Washington to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the CBC at the Warner Theatre. Needless to say, my heart was filled with pride. In addition to Stokes and Rangel, I thought of the other 11 founding members of the CBC: Reps. Shirley Chisolm, Bill Clay Sr., Charles Diggs, George Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Augustus Hawkins, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell and Robert Nix. With the exception of four, I was blessed to meet each.
Each of the founders not only saw the need for the CBC, but also had the courage, conviction and vision to establish the caucus as a much-needed voice of Black America in the halls of Congress. For 47 years, the CBC has fought “to empower these citizens and address their legislative concerns by pursuing a policy agenda” that includes, but is not limited, to:
• Reforming the criminal justice system and eliminating barriers to reentry.
• Combating voter suppression.
• Providing access to quality, affordable health care and eliminating health disparities.
• Promoting U.S. foreign policy initiatives in Africa and other countries that are consistent with the fundamental right of human decency.
In the recent midterm elections, Democrats regained control of the House and the CBC gained nine members: Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Jahana Hayes, Lauren Underwood, Lucy McBath, Steven Horsford, Joe Neguse, Antonio Delgado and Colin Allred.
For the first time in history, three CBC members hold positions in the House leadership. Rep. Jim Clyburn is now the House majority whip. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was recently elected the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. And Rep. Barbara Lee now serves as a co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
In the 116th Congress, the new 55-member CBC will yield unprecedented power. Five will hold the gavels of full committees and 28 of subcommittees.
Rep. Karen Bass, in remarks as the new chair of the CBC, stated, “The conscience of the Congress — the Congressional Black Caucus — will fight fiercely against hate. We will not retreat and allow our past victories to be erased. The CBC will in the 116th Congress exercise every ounce of our power and influence to continue to fight for justice. Now let’s get ready for the course correction.”
As I sat in the Warner Theatre, Stokes and the other 11 deceased founders of the CBC were also looking down from heaven, smiling and confident that while the struggle continues, their work was not in vain.
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.