WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that many Black Lives Matter and other African-American activists feel disconnected from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
From Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) telling protesters in Baltimore to “go home” after Freddie Gray’s death to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) scolding protesters for drowning out Hillary Clinton’s remarks in Atlanta, the generation gap is clear.
The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited a long-ignored conversation about police brutality, pushed two Democratic presidential candidates to release criminal justice platforms, and even infiltrated pop culture as a topic on “Law & Order: SVU.”
Meanwhile, younger activists wonder what the CBC is really doing for black people.
“I had no idea it was actually a group in Congress,” said Kwame Rose, a 21-year-old Baltimore activist best known for confronting Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera.
“Are they relevant? I don’t think a lot of people are relevant in the form that they aren’t effectively creating change for the people they are representing,” Rose added. “A lot of people get attention for putting ‘black’ or ‘activist’ in front of their name, but if they aren’t on the ground doing work, they aren’t relevant.”
Several CBC members who spoke with The Huffington Post were surprised to hear suggestions about a generation gap.
“You’re questioning the relevance of the Congressional Black Caucus? Therein lies a problem right there,” said Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), who granted that the caucus may need to better explain its work. “We are fighting every single day for the things they are talking about. We have been at it for years. We know how important this is. They’re our children. They’re our babies. They’re our grandchildren. They matter to us.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the caucus, said the CBC embraces the Black Lives Matter agenda, supports the movement and is willing to partner with and learn from millennial leaders in communities of color.
“I don’t want to accept the argument of the generational gap between the Congressional Black Caucus and our young leaders — and if there is one, we need to remove it,” Butterfield said. “Many of us are products of the [civil rights] movement. When you are a product of that, it’s in your DNA. It’s what you believe about and fight for every day. We want millennials and Black Lives Matter to understand we are engaged at a different level.”
Indeed, many CBC members spent plenty of time “on the ground doing work” before they were elected to Congress.
As a college student in North Carolina in the mid-1960s, Butterfield helped put together voter registration drives, and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he organized a student march to highlight the importance of voting rights.
Lewis is one of the best-known civil rights activists in the country, the last surviving member of the “Big Six” of the civil rights movement — a group that also included Martin Luther King Jr. and longtime NAACP head Roy Wilkins. The future Georgia congressman was one of the leaders of the “Bloody Sunday” marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, during which he suffered a fractured skull from beatings by white police officers.
Events like Bloody Sunday pushed politicians in Washington to enact changes like the Voting Rights Act.
Since its founding in 1971, the CBC has acted as a legislative voice for black people, working to build an America in which everyone “has an opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” Its 46 voting members make up 10 percent of the House of Representatives and 25 percent of the Democratic Caucus. They include one of the current two black senators (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey) and one Republican (Rep. Mia Love of Utah). The dearth of Republicans reflects the fact that black members of Congress — not to mention the black electorate — are overwhelmingly Democratic.
Currently, the caucus is focusing on securing funding for nutritional programs aimed at low-income families, for Pell Grants and for historically black colleges and universities. CBC Tech 2020 aims to improve diversity in tech sector employment.
For months, six members of the CBC have also been meeting to push forward criminal justice reform with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, a GOP committee chairman and a bipartisan group of other lawmakers, Butterfield said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas is part of the criminal justice reform effort. She described herself as a strong ally of Black Lives Matter. As ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, Jackson Lee has been outspoken about the problems facing black communities — including police brutality — and she pushed for a federal investigation into the fate of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died after being locked up over a traffic stop.
“I was in the Black Power movement. I feel as energized about Black Lives Matter. I don’t feel in any way separated from Black Lives Matter,” Jackson Lee said. “I do believe we are hand and glove. I am the legislative tool. I am implementing, hopefully, the message within the context of a Republican-dominated Congress to keep pushing the agenda of getting some reasonable criminal justice reform. … [The relationship] is a perfect combination. It’s a Thurgood Marshall to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Reps. Lewis and Cummings did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
From the other side, Melina Abdullah, one of the original members of the Black Lives Matter movement, said that members of the CBC have been supportive of their efforts and have advocated for them. But she said more work is needed.
“We need black elected officials and representatives to authentically represent black communities. We believe Black Lives Matter has been a part of the conversation to make it all right again to say the word ‘black’ and to be unapologetically black,” said Abdullah, who chairs the Department of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “We want our black officials to be unapologetically black and need them to advocate for the specific empowerment of black people.”
While Butterfield said the caucus’ top priority is to “reflect the goals of our constituents,” others have expressed skepticism that congressional lawmakers can fully reflect the concerns and desires of the people.
Professor James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University who speaks frequently about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, said the CBC has a hard time functioning in a way that best benefits black Americans. He pointed to the pernicious effects of big money in politics, the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the lack of effective accountability to the voters.
In fairness, Peterson said, there are “a lot of good people in the CBC. They are still extremely relevant to black lives … [and] they are suffering the same injustices as all of us.”
But, he said, the CBC “is not very representative. Black folks are far more progressive and far more leftist than those that represent us. The Senate and House aren’t representative of the crux of the American people. I’m not singling them [CBC members] out. They are a part of the institution.”
With the plight of black America back in the spotlight, however, there is general agreement that a dual-pronged attack on the street and in the halls of Congress can achieve more.
The CBC and Black Lives Matter both have things they’d like to see from the other group this year.
Many CBC members, including Payne and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), said the way to obtain truer representation in government is to get out and vote. Rose and Abdullah want more engagement and face time between the caucus and black millennials, and they’d like to see lawmakers physically standing on the front lines.
Butterfield said that the CBC is a part of Black Lives Matter, just one that is pushing for change in a separate way.
“I learned when I first got to Congress we are not the minority caucus. We are the black caucus. And we will promote that everyday,” Butterfield said. “We have identical values with Black Lives Matter. We understand the importance of peaceful confrontation and to confront injustice. We must join hands and do even more.”