“[The burden of race] is not behind us now; it’s right in front of us,” New York Representative Yvette Clarke told a crowd of students, faculty and locals Monday night. Chapin Hall and BrooksRogers overflowed with over 1300 people eager to witness the first reunion of the Congressional Black Congress (CBC) since Senator Barack Obama, former member of the group, was elected President on Nov. 4. Nine members of the CBC spoke on the panel, moderated by 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl. Honorary guests Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Dr. Elsie Scott, president of the CBC, were also present at the event.
The discussion, called “Race and the New Congress,” maintained a light-hearted tone while also addressing CBC members’ serious reactions to the election and predictions for the near future. The discussion was followed by questions from the audience.
The tone was set by an eruption of applause when Kathy Johnson, professor and chair of political science, introduced the event by excitedly recalling Obama’s election. Calling the CBC the “conscience of Congress,” she handed the reigns over to Stahl to begin the discussion.
Stahl began the discussion inquiring about the members’ initial reactions to the election, soliciting a variety of responses that together expressed redemption, hope and enthusiasm about the next presidency.
“The election was like the Emancipation Proclamation, like your birthday and like the mountaintop speech by Martin Luther King,” Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee said. “A burden was lifted off our shoulders; the world was ours.”
“Look how far we’ve come from a time when a black person counted as three-fifths of a person,” Illinois Representative Danny Davis said. “Here we are, 2008, when we could’ve elected a woman for the first time and we did elect an African American male for the first time – I say, my country, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœtis of thee.”
Several of the members spoke of the outpouring of emotion they experienced when Obama captured the presidency on Nov. 4. “I looked first in the face of my daughter and saw tears streaming down her face, and then I lost it. I was shedding tears of vindication for all those who kept faith in the American system,” said South Carolina Representative James Clyburn and House Majority Whip. “I saw in my children and grandchildren’s faces tears of hope.”
Stahl then asked the panel whether or not they had seen the Obamas on 60 Minutes and what they thought the family would bring to the White House. “To see this young leader, beautiful family, strong wife, lovely daughters, is going to send the strongest possible message that America is on its way to becoming a more perfect union,” Georgia Representative John Lewis said.
She then questioned how, or if, the Obama family will be seen as a representation of all American families. “It’s going to have a transformative impact on how people in this country see the African-American,” Virginia Representative Donna Christensen said.
When prompted about the recent talk of Senator Hillary Clinton assuming the post of Secretary of State, CBC members were generally receptive to the idea, even though the primary elections showed that
Obama and Clinton disagree on several issues. “If two people agree all the time, then one of them is unnecessary. I don’t think Obama is afraid to test theories and practices; I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if Clinton were the next Secretary of State,” Davis said.
Watson, who supported Clinton in the primaries, would also like to see her as Secretary of State. “She would bring the brilliance, contacts, and experience to that position, and I think a person who was the
editor of the Ã¢â‚¬ËœHarvard Law Review’ would recognize that it would do him good to put her at his side,” she said.
Some people have voiced doubts about the relationship between the CBC and future president, due to the CBC’s liberal history and Obama’s promise to be bipartisan. While members agree that there may be tension, they don’t believe that disagreement will prevent the two from working together. “No, we won’t always agree, but that may help the president. We may be further in front on an issue but that will help him with where he wants to go,” Christensen said.
“The CBC agenda is the agenda of America. It can help America become not the America that it has been, but the America that we know America can be,” Davis said. Although CBC members are liberal, they believe their ideas are more universal and less radical than often perceived. “I don’t see anything left about wanting to put people to work, feed people who are hungry, and provide energy to people who are cold,” Davis added.
Even among CBC members, opinions often differ, which members view as progressive, not limiting. “As we eat fried chicken and peach cobbler and break bread weekly, we have deep discourse. I’ve never seen an episode where all 43 members agree,” Georgia Representative Henry Johnson said. “It’s a great organization for keeping us aware of our history and the challenges and opportunities that we as a people face.”
After Stahl ran through her questions, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick began the question and answer session by asking about legislative business regarding race and how it will arise in Congress.
California Representative Diane Watson responded to Patrick’s question. “Race has been an issue in this country,” she said. “We are going to confront it, deal with it, negotiate it to a point where it won’t matter,” adding “people have started putting [Obama’s] race aside and looked at him as a leader.”
After Patrick’s question, more audience members than time allowed lined up to bring unaddressed issues to the table. Collin Killick ’12 asked whether or not America should provide foreign aid while its own economy suffers. The members were united in their belief that “America must not give up on the rest of the world,” Lewis said. “We need to invest in the Peace Corps and provide the people of this world with basic human needs. We can stop waste, we have resources – the Pentagon doesn’t need any more missiles and bombs,” he said. Watson added, “We’re never too poor to help our brothers around this globe.”
Greg Ferris ’10 inquired whether the role of the CBC and its place in society prompted feelings of solidarity between members and gay rights activists, in light of Proposition Eight, which ended the legality of gay marriage in California. Although members disagree about the degree of similarity between the civil and gay rights movements, all who answered encouraged homosexuals to continue their fight.
“We’re one nation, one people, one house, one family and we must all learn to live together,” Lewis said. “I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s not the government’s business to tell two people if they can fall in love and get married – it’s their business.”
Bernard Moore, visiting professor of political science and friend of a number of members of the CBC, was integral in organizing the event. He was impressed with how it went. “I never expected it to be so well attended. It was beyond imagination,” he said. “I was very impressed with the student response.”
“What an honor it was to host such an illustrious group at such an exciting time in our nation’s history,” President Schapiro said.
The event was sponsored by the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies, the College President’s Office, Africana Studies, the Multicultural Center and Claiming Williams.