The Congressional Black Caucus is an organization representing the black members of the United States Congress. Membership is exclusive to blacks, and its chair in the 112th Congress is Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
The caucus describes its goals as “positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans and others of similar experience and situation,” and “achieving greater equity for persons of African descent in the design and content of domestic and international programs and services.”
The CBC encapsulates these goals in the following priorities: Closing the achievement and opportunity gaps in education, assuring quality health care for every American, focusing on employment and economic security, ensuring justice for all, retirement security for all Americans, increasing welfare funds and increasing equity in foreign policy.
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tx., has said:
The Congressional Black Caucus is one of the world’s most esteemed bodies, with a history of positive activism unparalleled in our nation’s history. Whether the issue is popular or unpopular, simple or complex, the CBC has fought for thirty years to protect the fundamentals of democracy. Its impact is recognized throughout the world. The Congressional Black Caucus is probably the closest group of legislators on the Hill. We work together almost incessantly, we are friends and, more importantly, a family of freedom fighters. Our diversity makes us stronger, and the expertise of all of our members has helped us be effective beyond our numbers.
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies and popular culture at Duke University, wrote a column in late 2008 regarding the relevancy of the Congressional Black Caucus and other organizations such as the NAACP in the wake of Barack Obama being elected to the United States presidency. Neal wrote that he believes the Congressional Black Caucus and other African-American-centered organizations are still needed, but they must adapt to a changing political atmosphere and take advantage of “the political will that Obama’s campaign has generated.”
The caucus is officially non-partisan, but in practice it has been closely identified with the Democratic Party, and tends to function as a lobbying group within the wider Democratic Party. Only six black Republicans have been elected to Congress since the caucus was founded: Senator Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, Representative Gary Franks of Connecticut, Delegate Melvin H. Evans of the Virgin Islands, Representative J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, Representative Allen West of Florida, and Representative Tim Scott of South Carolina. Brooke was not in the CBC. Watts elected not to join the group because of its closely Democratic affiliation and goals, saying “…they said that I had sold out and [called me an] Uncle Tom. But I have my thoughts. And I think they’re race-hustling poverty pimps.” After the 2010 midterms, Allen West joined the caucus while Tim Scott declined. West indicated that he planned to shake up the CBC’s “monolithic” ideology and indicated the caucus promoted a culture of victimization among its black constituents.
The caucus has grown steadily as more black members have been elected. In 1969 the caucus had nine members. As of 2008, it had 43 members, including two who are non-voting members of the House, representing the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Over the years, the question has arisen, “Does the caucus allow only black members?” Pete Stark, D-CA., who is white, tried and failed to join in 1975. In January 2007, Josephine Hearn reported in Politico that white members of Congress were not welcome to join the CBC. Freshman Representative Steve Cohen, D-TN., who is white, pledged to apply for membership during his election campaign to represent his constituency, which is 60% African American. Hearn further reported that although the bylaws of the caucus do not make race a prerequisite for membership, former and current members of the caucus agreed that the group should remain “exclusively black.” Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr., D-MO., the son of Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., D-MO., a co-founder of the caucus, is quoted as saying, “Mr. Cohen asked for admission, and he got his answer. He’s white and the caucus is black. It’s time to move on. We have racial policies to pursue and we are pursuing them, as Mr. Cohen has learned. It’s an unwritten rule. It’s understood.” In response to the decision, Rep. Cohen stated, “It’s their caucus and they do things their way. You don’t force your way in.” Clay issued an official statement from his office:
Quite simply, Rep. Cohen will have to accept what the rest of the country will have to accept—there has been an unofficial Congressional White Caucus for over 200 years, and now it’s our turn to say who can join ‘the club.’ He does not, and cannot, meet the membership criteria, unless he can change his skin color. Primarily, we are concerned with the needs and concerns of the black population, and we will not allow white America to infringe on those objectives.
On January 25, 2007, Representative Tom Tancredo, R-CO., spoke out against the continued existence of the CBC as well as the Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference saying, “It is utterly hypocritical for Congress to extol the virtues of a color-blind society while officially sanctioning caucuses that are based solely on race. If we are serious about achieving the goal of a colorblind society, Congress should lead by example and end these divisive, race-based caucuses.”
There have been only four black Senators in the modern era, each of whom was the only black senator during his or her tenure. Edward Brooke, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts in the 60s and 70s, was not a member of the CBC. The remaining three black senators were all members of the Congressional Black Caucus and were all from Illinois. They are Carol Moseley Braun (1993–1999), current President Barack Obama (2005–2008), and Roland Burris (2008–2010). Burris was appointed by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in December 2008 to fill Obama’s seat for the remaining two years of his Senate term.
A predecessor to the caucus was founded in January 1969 as a “Democratic Select Committee” by a group of black members of the House of Representatives, including Shirley Chisholm of New York, Louis Stokes of Ohio and William L. Clay of Missouri. Black representatives had begun to enter the House in increasing numbers during the 1960s, and they had a desire for a formal organization. The first chairman, Charles Diggs, served from 1969 to 1971 and landed on the master list of Nixon political opponents for his position.
This organization was renamed the Congressional Black Caucus in February 1971 on the motion of Charles B. Rangel of New York. Founding members of the caucus were Shirley Chisholm, William L. Clay Sr., George W. Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Augustus F. Hawkins, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell, Robert Nix, Charles Rangel, Louis Stokes, and Washington D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy.
In late 1994, after Republicans attained a majority in the House, they announced plans to rescind funding for 28 “legislative service organizations” which received taxpayer funding and occupied offices at the Capitol, including the CBC. Then-chairman Kweisi Mfume protested the decision. The House did abolish the legislative service organizations, including the CBC, by a voice vote on H.Res.6 on January 4, 1995, which prohibited “the establishment or continuation of any legislative service organization…”  The CBC reconstituted as a Congressional Member Organization. 
In February 2010, The New York Times reported the caucus received 55 million dollars in contributions from corporations between 2004 and 2008. Most of that money went to social events and the organization’s headquarters building on Embassy Row. In 2007, it paid more to the caterer for a single event than it spent on scholarships. Scholarships controlled by the caucus were a source of public concern in September 2009 when it was reported Sanford Bishop and other members directed the money to members of their families and political cronies.
The Times compared the amount of money spent on internships by the caucus ($378,000 in 2008) to the amount paid for the decorator of its annual prayer breakfast that year ($350,000).
Ralph Nader incident
In 2004, independent presidential candidate and consumer activist Ralph Nader attended a meeting with the caucus which turned into a shouting exchange. The caucus urged Nader to give up his presidential run, fearing that it could hurt John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s nominee. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) called the upcoming election “a life or death matter” for the caucus members’ constituents. Nader accused Congressman Mel Watt of twice uttering an “obscene racial epithet” towards Nader; he alleged that Watt said: “You’re just another arrogant white man – telling us what we can do – it’s all about your ego – another f—king arrogant white man.” Watt never offered an apology.
Nader wrote to the caucus afterwards:
Instead, exclamations at the meeting… end[ed] with the obscene racist epithet repeated twice by Yale Law School alumnus Congressman Melvin Watt of North Carolina. One member of your caucus called to apologize for the crudity of some of the members. I had expected an expression of regret or apology from Congressman Watt in the subsequent days after he had cooled down. After all there was absolutely no vocal or verbal provocation from me or from my associates, including Peter Miguel Camejo, to warrant such an outburst. In all my years of struggling for justice, especially for the deprived and downtrodden, has any legislator—white or black—used such language?
I do not like double standards, especially since our premise for interactions must be equality of respect that has no room, as I responded to Mr. Watt, for playing the race card. Therefore, just as African-Americans demanded an apology from Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz and Senator Trent Lott—prior to their resignation and demotion respectively—for their racist remarks, I expect that you and others in the caucus will exert your moral persuasion and request an apology from Congressman Watt. Please consider this also my request for such an expression—a copy of which is being forwarded directly to Mr. Watt’s office.
On June 26, 2009, the day after the death of Michael Jackson, members of the caucus called for a moment of silence in Jackson‘s honor. Some members of the House walked off the House floor during the ensuing silence, citing Jackson’s accusations of child molestation and their musical tastes.
Chairs of the caucus
The following representatives have served as chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus:
- Charles Coles Diggs, Jr. 1971–1972
- Louis Stokes 1972–1974
- Charles B. Rangel 1974–1976
- Yvonne Brathwaite Burke 1976–1977
- Parren James Mitchell 1977–1979
- Cardiss Collins 1979–1981
- Walter Edward Fauntroy 1981–1983
- Julian Carey Dixon 1983–1985
- Mickey Leland 1985–1987
- Mervyn Malcolm Dymally 1987–1989
- Ronald V. Dellums 1989–1991
- Edolphus Towns 1991–1993
- Kweisi Mfume 1993–1995
- Donald M. Payne 1995–1997
- Maxine Waters 1997–1999
- James E. Clyburn 1999–2001
- Eddie Bernice Johnson 2001–2003
- Elijah E. Cummings 2003–2005
- Melvin L. Watt 2005–2007
- Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick 2007–2009
- Barbara Lee 2009–2011
- Emanuel Cleaver 2011–present