Profiling books, articles and other publications written by scholars-in-residence at The John W. Kluge Center and researched using the Library of Congress collections. Today, in recognition of African American History Month, a look at a case study of the Congressional Black Caucus written by former Congressman Major R. Owens.
Upon his retirement from Congress, U.S. Representative Major R. Owens began a residency at The John W. Kluge Center to author a case study of the Congressional Black Caucus. Owens, who had formerly worked as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, spent 24 years in the House, entering the Chamber in 1983. He was an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus throughout his career, and at the Kluge Center in 2007 he used the Library’s resources to author an analysis of the caucus’s structure, role and accomplishments.
The CBC formed in 1971, though blacks had served in Congress for 100 years prior. The first African American Member was sworn into Congress in 1870 (a black Member elected in 1868 had been denied his seat). According to scholar Marguerite Ross Barnett[i], the CBC’s origins date to the late 1960s, when Congressman Charles Diggs created the Democracy Select Committee. Considered the forerunner to the CBC, Diggs conceived the Select Committee as a way to bring black Representatives together. In February 1970, African Americans in Congress requested a conference with then-President Nixon on a wide range of issues concerning blacks and the poor in the U.S. The President met with the newly formed caucus fourteen months later and 61 recommendations were presented, including the eradication of racism, decent housing for black families, and full participation by blacks in government. The caucus was envisioned as functioning as “Congressman at large for 20 million Black people. The functions that individual members perform for their constituents, the CBC would perform for black Americans generally.”[ii]
The founding mission of the caucus is the central theme that Owens explores. Titled “The Peacock Elite: A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Owens combines the history of the caucus with analysis of its leaders and personalities to assess how the CBC has fared in its mission to improve the lives of black Americans. In particular, Owens addresses the realities of political life in Washington and how Members of Congress negotiate the needs of their constituents, their caucuses, their parties and their careers.
Owen’s term “peacock” refers to elected officials who he considers as being skilled at public display. This is not necessarily, according to Owens, to the detriment of governance or policymaking. Owens cites early CBC “peacocks” such as the colorful and charismatic Shirley Chisholm. Nicknamed “Fighting Shirley,” Chisholm was the nation’s first African American Congresswoman who had a fiery reputation as an activist, trailblazer and critic of contemporary politics. In 1972 she became the first African American woman to challenge for a major party’s presidential nomination, receiving 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention.[iii] Owens contrasts Chisholm’s leadership style with that of former CBC Chairman Louis Stokes, whose quieter leadership style also achieved many legislative successes, including scholarships and training programs for minority recruits in numerous agencies and departments, most notably at NASA.
As a Congressman from 1983 – 2006, Owens witnessed many changes in Washington. Throughout his book, Owens returns frequently to the evolution of the media landscape and its effects on elected officials. Owens offers behind-the-scenes insights into how Members attempt to balance service toward their constituents with the need to ensure their own reelection and visibility. “Each lawmakers must consider himself a product,” he writes, “and schedule the phases of the selling campaigns.” [iv]
Owens recognizes the “significant victories and substantial progress” achieved by the CBC from 1971 – 2006, and how it influenced the political process.[v] He also identifies areas where the CBC may have done more. For example, during the Reagan Administration, Owens suggests CBC leaders had opportunities to challenge the President further to alleviate Black poverty and unemployment, which in 1986 had risen to 42 percent and 14.4 percent respectively according to Owens.[vi]
Owens wrote and completed the book at the Kluge Center in 2007, yet it was not published until 2011. During that time the nation elected its first African American President, Barack Obama, which made the book somewhat of a historical artifact even before it was published. Owens acknowledges this in his foreword, while simultaneously observing that the challenges faced by African Americans have not dissipated despite President Obama’s election. The mission of the CBC continues to be relevant, he writes. During African American History Month is an appropriate time to re-read Owens’ words.
Hon. Major R. Owens was a distinguished visiting scholar at The John W. Kluge Center in 2007, researching and writing a case study of the Congressional Black Caucus. His book “The Peacock Elite: A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus,” was published in 2011. Owens passed away in October 2013. This post, and others in this series, does not constitute the Library’s endorsement of the views of the individual scholar or an endorsement of the publisher.
- “The Peacock Elite, A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus” (2011) (LC catalog record)
- “A New Challenge to the Congressional Black Caucus” (2007) (Webcast)
- U.S. Congressman Major Owens Named Distinguished Visiting Scholar at John W. Kluge Center (Dec. 26, 2006)
- Congressman Major Owens and Distinguished Panel To Discuss “A New Challenge to Black Congressional Caucus” (Sept. 20, 2007)
More posts in this series
- “Written at the Kluge Center: The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth”
- “Written at the Kluge Center: Violence, Ethnicity and Human Remains During the Second Seminole War”
[i] Marguerite Ross Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 1, Congress against the President (1975). Ross Barnett’s article was part of a larger study of the CBC with funds provided by a James Madison Bicentennial preceptorship from Princeton University and a travel and study grant from the Ford Foundation.
[ii] Ross Barnett, “The Congressional Black Caucus”
[iii] “CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita,” U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/C/CHISHOLM,-Shirley-Anita-%28C000371%29/
[iv] Owens, “The Peacock Elite,” p. 278.
[v] Ibid, p.30
[vi] Ibid, p.66