The model for the new cadre of Black congresspeople trying to change politics

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped elect new, left leaning Black members of Congress who broadly align with the movement's goals. These members, including Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., along with sophomore Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., use their positions to continuously call out White supremacy and to critique political tools that they associate with it, including the Senate's filibuster.

They have challenged the reigning consensus in their party on issues such as climate change, policing and reparations. Even though they and their allies on the left are only a small fraction of Congress, their influence combined with the efforts of activists has dramatically shifted what is seen as possible by many members.

In this way, they are following in the footsteps of Black trailblazers who left their mark on Congress and American politics. Two such members were Reps. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., D-N.Y., and Augustus Hawkins, D-Calif. Both helped reshape society with their contributions to one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA). Recalling their role in drafting the CRA illuminates how activists and African American members of Congress today can successfully shape policy.

The story of the CRA is often told through a literal Black and White binary. Black activists such as Ella Baker, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr., led various civil rights organizations throughout the post-World War II period. Their efforts eventually forced White leaders in Congress and the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations to pass legislation that tackled various forms of discrimination in the South and across the country, including the seminal CRA.

While the story of theses battles commonly includes Democratic and Republican politicians, as well as Black activists, it omits the instrumental role that Powell and Hawkins played in crafting Titles VI and VII of the CRA, respectively.

Title VI originated with the "Powell Amendment," which proposed outlawing federal funds from going to institutions that practiced racial discrimination. Powell and the NAACP first devised this proposal in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools in 1954, they also used the amendment to draw attention to the continued support for segregated facilities at the federal, state and local levels. Powell attempted to attach the amendment to various pieces of legislation.

The most important attempt came in 1955-1956 when Congress debated a school construction proposal. Powell and the NAACP persuaded enough civil rights advocates in the House to support attaching the Powell amendment to the bill in an effort to punish segregated schools for defying Brown and to try to force their desegregation.

Yet the House did not pass the school construction bill, and subsequently many of the congressmen who supported Powell and the NAACP on the amendment withdrew their support for it. They did not want to see other proposals suffer the same fate.

Powell regularly tried to attach the amendment to legislation, but he was rarely successful after the school construction bill. Many otherwise steadfast supporters of civil rights became frustrated with his constant advocacy for the amendment because they saw it as counterproductive.

Undeterred, Powell, whose nickname was "Mr. Civil Rights," spoke to the frustration of Black voters and activists with "weak platforms and watered-down legislation" intended to placate the White South. In 1957, at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom organized by Baker, Bayard Rustin and King, Powell said Black voters needed to create a "third force" in electoral politics because leaders of both parties had failed to implement a strong civil rights agenda, including the Powell Amendment.

Many Northern White congressmen found these charges personally insulting and considered them a threat to undermine Black support for the Democratic Party. They felt trapped: Either support the Powell Amendment, despite its potential to kill legislation, or face charges of subservience to White Southerners and political damage. For the sake of passing legislation, most abandoned the amendment in the late 50s and early 60s, including the NAACP.

In the early 1960s, Powell became chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. He largely abandoned his own amendment in an effort to forge better ties with the Kennedy administration. Even so, as momentum built to pass a civil rights bill, many members of Congress wanted to avoid a resumption of his earlier criticism. They therefore demanded the Powell Amendment be attached to the eventual CRA. It was already going to face a Southern filibuster in the Senate, they reasoned, so including the proposal only removed a source of future frustration and political risk.

This political calculus created an opportunity for other provisions previously deemed too controversial. Hawkins took advantage of this atmosphere to write and attach what would eventually become Title VII to the law. This provision outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color and national origin as well as establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce this ban. Hawkins had written a statewide ban on such employment discrimination in California after Congress failed to make permanent the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created by executive order during World War II.

When Hawkins arrived to Congress in 1963, he introduced a federal version of his California law immediately. He then worked with the former president's son, Rep. James Roosevelt, D-Calif., who had written similar proposal, on a unified bill. A version of their proposal eventually made it out of the House Judiciary Committee, but like so many civil rights bills during this era, it failed to escape the House Rules Committee, chaired by ardent segregationist Rep. Howard Smith, D-Va.

The breakthrough for Hawkins and Roosevelt came when they decided to raise support for their proposal outside of Congress to accompany their legislative work. They reached out to contacts among Black leaders and Northeastern liberals, respectively. They eventually connected with A. Phillip Randolph, whose proposal for a march on Washington in 1941 had forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the FEPC. Randolph was one of the leaders of the newly scheduled 1963 March on Washington. Hawkins and James Roosevelt convinced Randolph to prioritize their legislation when the march leaders met with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Thanks to the support of Randolph and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y., and the opening created by fear of blowback over an insufficient bill, Hawkins's and Roosevelt's legislation became attached to the Civil Rights bill as Title VII.

Attaching it was not without risk. The provision threatened to fracture the delicate bipartisan coalition supporting civil rights legislation. Republicans believed it illegally restricted the rights of business owners. Smith also proposed an amendment to include sex as a protected category under Title VII on the floor of the House, hoping it would act as a poison pill like the Powell Amendment had in the past. Yet the House adopted Smith's amendment and still passed the bill.

Eventually, the Johnson administration struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., to weaken Title VII by stripping the EEOC of any enforcement powers. The agreement ensured enough Republican support to overcome a months-long filibuster by Southern senators. Although weakened, Title VII became one of the most important aspects of the law, and it was primarily written by a freshman African American congressman.

Hawkins's success in pushing Title VII reveals how when we include Black legislators in the story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, we see the importance of a coordinated effort inside and outside the halls of Congress for advancing civil rights. The story of Powell and Title VI likewise shows the benefit consistent pressure can have on members of Congress, especially if they believe that it puts their own political power at risk.

The work of Black members like Hawkins and Powell in Congress and their collaboration with activists shifted what was seen as possible and feasible. It remains to be seen what impact Bush, Bowman and their allies will have on American politics. But if they continue to work in tandem with various Black activists and organizations like their predecessors, they have the chance to reshape the political environment, and reimagine what is possible on Capitol Hill.

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Greyson Teague is a PhD candidate in the history department at Ohio State University. He is writing a dissertation examining the role of Black members of Congress in the civil rights era.