Power rising, Black Caucus turns to next generation


WASHINGTON -- The Congressional Black Caucus' 24th Annual Legislative Conference is ground zero of black political meetings.

For the 40 black caucus members -- 39 House members (including the non-voting delegate from the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton) and one senator, Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois -- the conference, which ended late Saturday night, was a celebration of their existence.

Here are selected sights and sounds of black legislators and their friends.

To officially open the five-day conference, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., delivered the 1994 Legislative State of Black America address.

Mr. Mfume, chairman of the black caucus, was the most charismatic icon of the week and, perhaps, its most influential. His term ends in two months when the current legislative session closes. His speech -- with its references and quotations from President Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Hon. Elijah Muhammad -- was his valedictory address.

"Unlike many in this room," he said, "I came out of a disjointed family structure. I grew up in the worst possible conditions: I became homeless after my mother's death, hit the streets and dropped out of school, flirted with every temptation that was around, became a teen parent before my time, felt left out and victimized."

Life turned around "because of a blessing . . . [I] found myself," he said. And the challenge of the black caucus is to live up to its conference theme -- "Embracing Our Youth for a New Tomorrow" -- to reform political institutions so other young black people may live by his example.

Mr. Mfume added that his tenure as leader of the black caucus was bittersweet. "Many Americans see the black caucus as this wide-eyed, crazy, pinko-Communist, liberal, twisted group that can't think for itself, that's out of step with everybody, everything and has nothing better to do except to stand up and to put forth and to advance positions."

But Mr. Mfume, said: "We exist because we have no choice. We all would like to believe we could live to see the day there would not be a need for the Congressional Black Caucus. Ladies and gentlemen, that day has not arrived."

This year's conclave was special because the caucus membership is swollen with newfound influence and power. In 1970, when the caucus was organized, there were 13 members.

More than 2,700 people attended the first CBC legislative dinner, held in 1971 at the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington. Then as now, the affair was showy, causing concern that a $100-a-plate dinner "signaled a catering to rich corporations and the abandonment of our commitment to the poor," Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., wrote in "Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress 1870-1991," his semi-autobiographical history of the caucus.

There were young people everywhere. Fraternity-boy types in power suits and kente-cloth neckties. High-school-aged girls jotting notes furiously on lined paper. Freshly minted professionals whispering into cellular telephones.

Since President Clinton rode to the White House on town hall meetings aimed at young folks, it seems everybody is trying that approach. CBC-style, the town hall meeting was a celebrity-attended discussion titled "Generation X: Black Voices of Reason, Rage and Responsibility."

"I guess they think we're the X-generation because of our Malcolm X caps," one convention-goer remarked.

There was also a lunch for 200 Washington-area high school students, a mock Congress where students from across the nation drafted and passed laws, and workshops on issues such as hip-hop culture.

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