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Congressional Black Caucus members warn of the return of Jim Crow

Lawmakers, VP Harris urge voting in numbers, ‘calling out’ racist actions

Kenneth J. Cooper and Jack Drewry
Congressional Black Caucus members warn of the return of Jim Crow
Congressional Black Caucus members Steven Horsford (chair), Ayanna Pressley and Jim Clyburn attended a town hall hosted by Pressley at Roxbury Community College. PHOTO: DON WEST

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus by virtue of his age, 83, and 30 years in office, says he is worried, very worried.

The sources of his deep concern, even fear, are a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court that has eliminated the systematic consideration of race in college admissions and the prospect of the Republican presidential nomination possibly going to former president Donald Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both being founts of racially backward sentiments and policies.

“Ever since the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, forces in our country went to work to get a new Supreme Court. That decision, as you know, was a 9-0 decision,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

“So we’ve now gone from a 9-0 decision in favor of democracy to a 6-3 decision against democracy,” Clyburn said, referring to the majority in the recent college affirmative action case. “And they do not plan to stop there.”

“My parents, my grandparents, sacrificed a whole lot for me to get where I am today. I’m afraid that my children and grandchildren are going to be living the experiences that my parents and grandparents had if we are not very careful,” he said, invoking Jim Crow segregation. “And I say this: the next 18 months will determine whether or not we relive those experiences. We have to be vigilant.”

Clyburn’s comment about looking ahead to next year’s presidential election was met with applause from about 100 community organizers July 29 at Roxbury Community College. Rep. Ayanna Pressley hosted a training session for the organizers and a town hall meeting afterwards that five Black Caucus members attended.

The caucus, at its largest ever with 58 members, has been taking a national tour, with Boston’s being the 10th of a dozen town halls scheduled, to hear from people outside the Washington Beltway, talk about recent Supreme Court decisions and motivate Black voters to turn out to reelect President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who made an unannounced appearance at Roxbury Community College.

Vice President Kamala Harris joined Ayanna Pressely at the Congressional Black Caucus town hall at Roxbury Community College. PHOTO: DON WEST

“It all comes down to the vote,” Pressley said.

Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, chair of the Black Caucus, at 50 is a lot younger than Clyburn, but he, too, foresees an existential threat to democracy and Black Americans.

“Donald Trump asked us in the last election, ‘What do Black people have to lose?’ and then worked with Mitch McConnell to stack the federal judiciary and to steal, not just one, but two, U.S. Supreme Court justice spots,” Horsford said. “Because of that, the Supreme Court has answered for Black America, and I believe for all of America, exactly what we had to lose — our fundamental rights and freedoms and the very existence to live as Black people.”

Leaders of the Black Caucus and NAACP have confronted such threats in the past.

After Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, trepidation rippled through Black communities. Benjamin L. Hooks, a Baptist minister who was then the NAACP’s executive director, struck a reassuring tone, invoking the Bible. “This too shall pass,” he said.

In 1994, as Republicans prepared to take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Sen. Phil Gramm, a white Republican from Texas, told Washington Post editors and reporters that election marked “the end of the second Reconstruction.” After the first one, Black southerners were disenfranchised, Black members of Congress were ousted one by one and segregation spread across the country.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, who chaired the Black Caucus then, before resigning to lead the NAACP and returning to Congress in 2020, vowed unyielding resistance. “We are not going back there,” he told reporters. Clyburn succeeded him as Caucus chair in 1995.

At the convention, Clyburn cast DeSantis as a threat on par with Trump, citing his changes to Black history in Florida’s curriculum.

“When he started his campaign, he said from the very beginning, ‘I want to bring Florida to the entire country.’ That’s what his campaign is all about,” Clyburn said. “He is not in this alone. The thing that’s got [his backers] upset now is they thought he would be a much better candidate. They didn’t realize how stupid he was,” the last comment prompting laughter in the room.

Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, moderated the town hall. He asked the Black Caucus members, “How do we fight in this moment?” against the wave of racist moves.

“We need to call them out — those who are involved in it,” Horsford said.

In response to the Supreme Court decision on college admissions, Horsford said Caucus members “have met with and are working in coordination with the administration on a legal strategy, with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. We have asked for a formal investigation under the Civil Rights Act. There are laws that ensure we are enforcing nondiscrimination because [colleges] receive federal funding.”

Members, he added, have also been meeting with college presidents and admissions directors to discuss the effect of the decision. “And we are preparing for the next attack because we know they are going after other race-conscious policies, including federal contracting for Black-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned businesses,” Horsford said.

The other Black Caucus members who participated in the town hall were Reps. Marc Veasey of Texas and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick of Florida.

After landing at Logan Airport, Harris entered the town hall to cheers.

“There is so much at stake in our country,” the vice president said. “We are looking at a full-on attack on the hard-fought, hard-won freedoms and rights that have been achieved by the people in this room and so many others that were here before us and upon whose shoulders we stand.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell talks with Vice President Kamala Harris at the NAACP convention in Boston. PHOTO: DON WEST

Harris cited the Supreme Court’s recent decisions overturning the constitutional right to abortion, rejecting Biden’s plan to forgive student loans and eliminating race-conscious college admissions. She also cited Florida’s curriculum change and broader efforts to undo diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“So we are at a moment now when we are facing some boldfaced hypocrisy from extremist so-called leaders,” she said. “And how do we call it out? Well, we name it what it is, but then we work to make sure that they don’t win with that foolishness.”

Harris also challenged community organizers to match the high Black voter turnout in the 2020 election, which occurred despite the pandemic.

“Let’s not wait until next year on the eve of the election. We’ve got to start now. Let’s start registering folks now to vote,” she said.

Later that evening, Harris and Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell had a candid, armchair conversation on stage before NAACP delegates at the Boston Convention Center.

Theirs is a relationship with deep roots extending back to Campbell’s graduation from UCLA Law School when, as California’s attorney general, Harris was the commencement speaker. Most recently, they campaigned for each other in their latest respective election victories.

Harris and Campbell talked at an opening public mass meeting that began with the presentation of a U.S. flag by members of the honorary 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment in Civil War uniforms. The presentation of color was in keeping with the NAACP Boston Branch’s plan to highlight the historical contributions of African Americans in Massachusetts.

ayanna pressley, Congressional Black Caucus, jim crow, Kamala Harris, Rep. Steven Horsford, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn