WASHINGTON — Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), was sworn in as the 26th Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which grew to a historic 55 Members. During the 116th Congress, five of those Members will chair full House Committees and 28 will chair House Subcommittees.
Since its establishment in 1971, the CBC has been committed to using the full Constitutional power, statutory authority, and financial resources of the federal government to ensure that African Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. As part of this commitment, the CBC has fought to address critical issues such as voting rights, criminal justice reform, and equal access to quality education.
Rep. Bass delivered the below remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s swearing-in ceremony:
“Good morning everyone! Today is a glorious day! Not just for the CBC because we are 55 members strong! But today is a glorious day for our country! Today marks the beginning of a course correction—correcting the trauma we have all experienced on a daily basis for the last two years!
First and foremost, I’d like to thank my family and friends who traveled all the way from California to be here with me.
I want to thank my CBC colleagues for giving me the honor and the responsibility of serving you as your chair—during the 116th Congress. I want to acknowledge and thank the members of the Executive Committee —1st Vice Chair Joyce Beatty, 2nd Vice Chair Brenda Lawrence, Secretary Hank Johnson, Whip Don McEachin, Parliamentarian Steven Horsford, and Members at Large Dwight Evans, Fredericka Wilson.
And, I want to thank our outgoing Chair whose big shoes I will work hard to fill. From the 125-page document delivered to the White House entitled “We Have A Lot To Lose,”; to the 1000-page piece of legislation focusing on jobs and justice; to his obsession with a number… Let’s see, I think it was 218? He has accomplished much! So please join me in thanking him for his leadership!
I am especially honored to take on this responsibility at this particular moment in our nation’s history. This year marks the 400th anniversary when our ancestors arrived on this land. Some came here as free men and women, most were enslaved, and many of those who were free were later captured and forced into slavery. Our ancestors built the U.S. Capitol, they built the White House, and many of the historic buildings around DC. Sadly, it took over 200 of years to formally acknowledge their work. Rep John Lewis spent 10 years documenting their contribution to building the nation’s capital. It took over 100 years to build a museum that acknowledges the contributions African Americans have made to our nation’s development. And make no mistake – the wealth and advancement of our nation is because of 200 years of free labor from our ancestors.
For 100 years after the period of enslavement, US laws allowed Black Codes and other methods to arrest African Americans and enslave them again. US law did not prohibit mass murders or lynching to intimate us from objecting to our oppression. US law allowed for segregation, calling it Jim Crow, calling it separate and unequal. I call it US apartheid. At each juncture there were mass protest and movements that overturned or created laws to protect the African American population, including the Civil Rights movement that ended US Apartheid. Some of our senior CBC members led that movement: Rep Lewis, Holmes Norton, Jim Clyburn, Bennie Thompson and others.
I mention this history because the African American experience is characterized by horrific oppression but also amazing resilience. We organize, we struggle, we thrive, we win change in public policy in spite of opposition. And sometimes the very policies we win are attacked and attempts are made to move us backwards.
But each time there is a set back after a period of advancement, we fight back and we win and when we win, we move the needle even further forward. In spite of gerrymandering and voter suppression Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gilliam were both nominated for Governor of TWO Southern States… Who would have imagined? When they push us back, we find a way out of no way, so says Congressman John Lewis.
But many times throughout our history, the accomplishments of our folks are not recognized, not known, or others receive the credit—until the movie Hidden Figures how many of us knew about the African American female mathematicians who helped figure out how to launch the first man into space? The CBC has its own Hidden Figures. You might know them as individual Congressmembers but because it is not their practice to promote their accomplishments. Their incredible contributions have been hidden in legislation that others are credited with leading and securing passage.
For example, since the founding of the CBC 48 years ago, CBC members passed legislation that led to the creation of thousands of Black owned businesses by making sure we had access to federal contracts. CBC members contributed to the downfall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa by forcing the US to sanction that government—CBC members led the FIRST effort to provide federal support for community clinics. During the Affordable Care Act debate CBC members pushed for resources to address health disparities in communities of color. Just two weeks ago CBC members put $50 millions in the Farm Bill for financial aid for students attending HBCU’s. CBC members are the reason the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exist and just days ago criminal justice and juvenile justice reform legislation was signed into law—ALL major pieces of legislation led by the Hidden Figures of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But then 10 years ago this month, we watched one of our own, a fellow CBC member took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States. And even though there was a concerted effort to make him fail, his Presidency succeeded. His Presidency was without a blemish. After 8 years, no scandals, no investigations, no indictments. Can you imagine? This guy had all of that in his first two months! No surprise, he is obsessed with erasing Obama from history.
The truth is, we are right in the middle of one of those historical moments where there is a concerted, a deliberate, attempt to erase and to reverse policy victories, not just from the Obama years, but policy victories won over the last seven decades! The very idea of Barack Obama’s presidency brought to the surface a reality that should be celebrated in our country. America is becoming more diverse and this diversity is leading to the browning of our nation. Instead of a celebration, the reaction by some has essentially unleashed a dragon – a dragon that is gasping its last breath and so he is dangerous as he lashes out. The dragon is hate. The dragon is white supremacy. And they have a leader. In the past, people would have been embarrassed to be associated with white supremacy but today, some would have moved from embarrassed to emboldened.
However, at this moment in history there is a fundamental difference: we will have tremendous power and influence. At this moment in history we are equipped like never before to lead, we are equipped to govern, and we are equipped to resist when and where it’s needed. We are equipped to lead with a vision for our country that not only lifts up our community, but lifts up the nation as a whole. When the 116th Congress is officially sworn in, there will be 55 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. This is the largest number of African-Americans to ever to serve in Congress. Two of our members, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris serve in the US Senate. They just passed legislation that made lynching a federal crime. We are proud they led the effort but we are shocked they actually needed to.
In the House of Representatives, CBC members have more power and influence than any time in history. The number three position in leadership and the highest ranking African American in the House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Chairman of the Democratic Caucus Hakeem Jefferies, and Co-Chairwoman of Steering and Policy Barbara Lee.
I want everyone to think of this moment a few months from now. Just watch and see what happens when the gavels are placed in these hands. Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chair – Eddie Bernice Johnson. News Flash– She believes in Science! Please stand Madame Chair. Oversight and Government Reform Chair – Elijah Cummings. For an Administration that has had NO oversight, look out! I hear a tweet storm brewing. Financial Services Chair – Maxine Waters. Someone’s financial records just might come to light. Education and Labor Chair – Bobby Scott. Public education will not be sold to the highest bidder. Homeland Security Chair – Bennie Thompson. This is the largest federal agency in the US Government. I think we’re going to find out who is making all the money off the fake border crisis.
Five members of the CBC will chair five critically important committees, will the big five please stand again? We will watch them bring the CBC tradition, the Conscious of the Congress, into each one of their committees. Give them a hand!
And there is more power in this body. 28 members of the CBC will chair important subcommittees. Will the 28 chairs please stand? And for the first time we have the largest number of new CBC members in many years. 9 CBC members in the Freshman Class!
For the first time in 241 years of US history, African American members of Congress will have tremendous influence in setting the direction of the country. While we work hard inside of government as legislators, our efforts to hold back the attacks and lead in a positive direction will be bolstered by a new and expanded grassroots movement developed in response to the efforts to dismantle progressive policies including civil rights legislation, dismantle protections designed to keep our air, water, and food safe to name just a few.
This movement has expanded involvement in the democratic process and the CBC in the 116th Congress will play a role both inside and outside of Congress protecting the most basic right to vote and participate in our democracy. When this time period is over we must make sure we not only prevented any movement backwards, but we strengthened and consolidated our gains. We moved the needle forward and expanded participation in the democratic process in an effort to ensure hateful leadership never assumes power again.
Colleagues it is wonderful to be humble, to just focus on the work and not promote what has been accomplished. But part of making sure our folks stay strong and have hope and energy to keep up the fight to get through this tragic period in our history is letting everyone know specifically about the work, about the accomplishments of the 55 people on this stage. We admonish our youth for not voting but it on us to show them what can be accomplished when they do participate. We have to give them hope to see that things can change, so they can lead their generation in continuing the effort to make this country into a more perfect union.
The Conscious of the Congress–the Congressional Black Caucus in the 116th Congress will fight fiercely against hate, will not retreat and allow our past victories to be erased—the CBC in the 116th Congress will exercise every ounce of our power and influence to continue the fight for justice—Now let’s get ready for the course correction!