As the 111th Congress was officially sworn-in yesterday, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) participated in a ceremonial program to mark the new session. The event was held in the Congressional Auditorium of the recently opened Capitol Visitors Center.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a seven term member, was chosen by her colleagues to lead the Caucus and is the 21st chairperson in its history. She succeeds Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Democrat of Michigan. Joining Rep. Lee in the leadership of the Caucus are Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri (first vice chairman); Del. Donna M. Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands (second vice chairwoman); Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina (secretary) and Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York (whip). The Congressional Black Caucus, founded in 1971, includes all 41 Black members of Congress. President-elect Barack Obama was a member of the Caucus during his four years in the Senate. Presently all of the members of the Caucus are Democrats.
As Blacks have gained seniority in Congress, the CBC has grown in clout. Four CBC members will serve as chairmen of full committees in the 111th Congress. They include Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan (Judiciary), Charles B. Rangel of New York (Ways and Means), Bennie M. Thompson of Mississippi (Homeland Security) and Edolphus Towns of New York (Oversight and Government Reform). Reps. Conyers and Rangel are two of the 13 founding CBC members. Mr. Conyers entered Congress in 1965 and Mr. Rangel began serving in 1971. In addition, 15 CBC members will continue to lead House subcommittees during this session.
During the ceremony Rep. Lee noted, “The CBC leads this Congress on each and every issue with intelligence, commitment and power, yet continues to be the 'Conscience of the Congress' and the voice of the voiceless. I thank the new officers for agreeing to be a part of my leadership team and all of our prior chairs for their visionary leadership.”
The Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and Martin Luther King III, president and chief executive officer of Realizing the Dream, offered congratulatory remarks to the CBC during the program. Johnnetta B. Cole, Ph.D., president emeritus of Bennett College, served as the event's
mistress of ceremonies and Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins performed two of her signature songs, "Change" and "Oh Happy Day." The Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Jr., senior pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in San Jose, Calif., delivered the invocation and the Hon. Judith W. Rogers of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia administered the ceremonial oath of office.
As the 111th Congress begins, the CBC includes four new members serving their first full term in the House of Representatives: Reps. Laura Richardson of California, Andre Carson of Indiana, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio. Three of the new members – Richardson, Carson and Fudge - replace CBC members who have passed away. In the case of Rep. Andre Carson, he succeeds his mother, the late Rep. Julia Carson.
With expectations among Black Americans running high with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black President, the CBC will find itself drawn into many of the key debates that focus on issues of particular concern to the Black community. First up is the economic recovery package the incoming administration is preparing to navigate through Congress. With many Blacks facing multiple hardships in this recession, the Caucus will be called upon by its constituents to be strong advocates for their interests. Given the current size of the CBC, and the role it can play in shaping the agenda of the House Democratic Caucus, it may be well positioned to advance some of the issues it has embraced in the past. It also has the advantage of having one of its members, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, serve in the leadership of the Democratic Caucus as majority whip.
One of the early tests for the Caucus appears to be the Senate Democrats refusal to seat Roland Burris, chosen by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to fill the unexpired term of Mr. Obama. Several CBC members, including two from Illinois, Rep. Danny Davis and Rep. Bobby Rush, have publicly supported Burris. While the CBC has no sitting member in the Senate, its importance to Democrats cannot be overstated. If aligned, the Congressional Black Caucus represents a powerful voting bloc that will have to be reckoned with by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic majority.