By Ofield Dukes
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The contributions of CBC members in ushering a new era of Black political empowerment are enormous.
Unfortunately, these history-making legislative accomplishments of Black members of the U.S. Congress are not as well known by their constituents and the new generation of young Black Americans as they should be. I had the privilege of assisting in organizing and coordinating public relations for the first CBC dinner, held on June 18, 1971.
Rep. Charles Diggs, Jr. (D-MI), as the senior Black member of Congress, began a deliberate process of organizing the CBC. Having a prior friendship with Rep. Diggs, a Democrat who was a popular Detroit funeral home director, I was aware of his concern that President Richard Milhous Nixon might try to dismantle the historic civil rights legislation and Great Society programs passed under the courageous leadership of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Diggs also took umbrage that President Nixon refused to meet with the 13 Blacks who were in the Congress at that time. Ms. Carolyn P. DuBose, a former press secretary to Rep. Diggs, described in her well-researched book, The Untold Story of Charles Diggs, how Diggs began organizing the CBC by establishing a Democratic Select Committee in 1969.
She quoted Rep. Diggs as saying, “They did not call me. I am the one who called them. I am the guy that called the meetings.” Added Diggs, according to Ms. DuBose, “I deliberately did not come in there pharaoh-style. I wanted things to come up through the group to set the pattern about what they wanted to do.”
In addition to a climate of White House hostility, in the Civil Rights Movement there emerged a militant Black Power movement led by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. They both advocated meeting White violence with Black violence, contrary to the nonviolent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There was also fear and anxiety in the White community in linking such a radical effort by Black members in the U.S. Congress with the Black Power movement. I was in the second year of operating my public relations firm out of the National Press building when Rep. Diggs called me out of great concern for White and even Black perceptions associating the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus with the Black Power movement.
Diggs and I discussed a strategy of my firm convening a press conference at the National Press Club to clarify the objectives of the CBC. At the press conference, CBC members Rep. Louis Stokes and Rep. Williams Clay eloquently explained the political objectives of the Black Caucus and the planned first dinner that June.
A White syndicated columnist had written that the CBC dinner in June could be raising funds in support of a CBC member planning to run for president. The suggested candidate was Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), although Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) actually ran for president in 1972.
In my initial news release on the CBC dinner, I wrote: “Funds from the $100 per plate banquet will be used by the Caucus to finance a permanent, independent staff to conduct in-depth analysis of issues and polices relevant to Black and poor America.”
The news release continued, “In a formal statement, the Caucus said, ‘Rumors, news reports, editorials and other media statements are appearing frequently, implying sponsorship of the dinner is related to secret plans in support of a black member of Congress for the presidency in the 1972 elections. The Congressional Black Caucus categorically denies that any money raised by us at this affair will go to support one black or white Democrat, Republican, 3rd party or 4th party who is a candidate for the presidency.”
In my firm’s handling the public relations for the first dinner, there was concern about people coming to the nation’s capital paying as much as $100 to attend a dinner. That was quite a sum of money at that time. But at the dinner, there was an overwhelming crowd.
The hotel ballroom had a capacity of 2,400, 10 persons at 24 tables. However, there were 2,800 excited people squeezed into the ballroom, a standing-room-only crowd. We had an anxious moment at the hotel when the fire marshal threatened to do something about such an overflow crowd. That could have led to a riot and a public relations disaster.
The dinner itself was a huge success, with entertainment by singers Nancy Wilson and Billy Eckstein, humor by Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, and an electrifying speech by actor/orator Ossie Davis. Davis told the audience that “It’s not the man; it’s the plan; it’s not the rap; it’s the map.”
Davis went on to say, “At the time when Dr. King died in 1968, he was in the process of organizing his forces and calling upon his people to come one more time to Washington, D.C. And, I have a feeling that had he come that time he would not have said, ‘I have a dream.’ He would have said, ‘I have a plan.’ And, I feel that that plan might have made a difference.”
Ossie Davis’ profound remarks that inspired the founding 13 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the thousands who attended that first dinner 40 years ago are as relevant today. And, so is the work of the Congressional Black Caucus.
This story is a special to the National Newspaper Publishers’ Association (NNPA).