I was born on Lenox Avenue shortly after the Harlem Renaissance invigorated the neighborhood with the vibrancy of intellectual discovery and artistic expression. Escaping injustice, millions of Blacks searched for a place to call their own. They found a home in Harlem and thrived amid a cultural revolution that redefined what it meant to be Black in America.
As the epicenter of Black culture and scholarship, Harlem was an exciting place to grow up. I remember days of playing hooky from school and heading down to the Apollo Theater, where, at one point in our history, Blacks were not allowed to attend as patrons or to perform in theaters. To this day, I am moved by performances I saw from the great Billie Holliday. It was like she was singing right to me. Her voice still resonates in my memories.
But south of 125th Street, the same opportunities did not exist for Blacks. Back then, I could never have fathomed that one day I would in the United States Congress. I did not even know of anyone who had attended college. I did not have a mentor. I could not even dream or hope because, like so many other Blacks, no one had told me what was out there. But that all changed when I heard the brilliant Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
The dream that had eluded our community for so long started to become a reality. He gave hope to Blacks all over the country that one day we could all “live together as brothers.” His message of love and inclusion compelled me to march from Selma to Montgomery with him and thousands of other men and women who believed in change. Many years later, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis, would later become my colleague in the House and one of my closest friends.
Before my freshman class of 1971, there were only nine Black members of Congress. But the 13 of us in the 92nd Congress banded together to expand on Rep. Charles Digg’s vision for an organization that would unify Black legislators. The group’s founding principle was best articulated by Rep. William Clay Sr., who said: “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies … just permanent interests.” Its intent was to advocate for these interests through our shared identity. I proposed changing the group’s name from the Democratic Select Committee to what it is known today as the Congressional Black Caucus.
Still in our infancy in January 1971, our organization requested a meeting with President Richard Nixon to discuss our objectives. He refused. Just a few weeks later, we decided to respond in kind and boycott his State of the Union Address. In March, Nixon, tarnished by bad press after rejecting our invitation, acquiesced to our request. We met with him to “demand from the national administration … the only kind of equality that ultimately has any real meaning—equality of results.” This cemented the Congressional Black Caucus as a formidable force to be reckoned with, but our success came at a price: We were placed on Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List.”
Since then we have fought many battles and won. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the fateful Selma march, I am proud to say the caucus has grown to its current 46 and that one of its former members is now the president of the United States. Its tremendous growth is a testament to how much progress we have made as a nation since its creation. But while the 114th Congress is the most diverse to date, it is still 80 percent white and 80 percent male. Clearly, we still have a long way to go to reflect our American mosaic. When Black poverty hovers around 27 percent and tragedies such as Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death occur, it underscores the need for America to keep moving forward to achieve equality and justice for all.
Today, I still live on Lenox Avenue, just a few blocks away from my childhood home. While I have not moved far, our country sure has. I am so proud to have had a hand in the progress we have achieved—and even after four decades, the “Lion of Lenox Avenue” is still roaring strong.