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Congressional Black Caucus gathering shows complexity of Black America


I don’t know how many African American people came to Washington for the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), but there were more than 5,000 gathered at the dinner that featured President Barack Obama as a speaker. Although the halls of the Washington Convention Center were full, and it did my eyes good to see people lined up to buy books, some say that the economy may have dampened attendance. To be sure, the corporate presence did not seem as strong as it has been in the past, yet it is always gratifying to see Ingrid Sanders Jones and the Coca-Cola company sponsoring the prayer breakfast, which sizzled this year when the Rev. Freddy Haynes totally threw down.

The high point of the conference may have been President Obama’s strident and almost angry speech, challenging Congress to pass the jobs bill, and explaining why it must pass. Watching the president, he appeared to be undaunted, but certainly frustrated, by the legislative gridlock and the total lack of cooperation he has been experiencing from Congress. If those assembled reach out to their legislative representatives, not all of whom are CBC members, perhaps it will make some difference.

Another high point of the dinner was the range of wonderful honorees present. They included Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, and also the indomitable Rev. Joe Lowery, who at nearly 90, has as much fire in his belly as he did 50 years ago. He lifted his fist, roused the crowd, and exhorted us to keep fighting injustice. He is an amazing example of a civil rights warrior, and he deserves every honor that is bestowed on him.

That may have been the highest point but, from my perspective, the legislative conference contained many highs. There were more than one hundred brain trusts, panels, or other gatherings both at the convention center and in nearby places, as several organizations also use the legislative conference week as a time to organize their own meetings.

The White House HBCU initiative, for example, held its conference on the Monday and Tuesday before the CBC legislative conference. With everything that is going on, the ALC is a cross between a policy conference, a family reunion, with a few evening parties thrown in for good measure.

Somehow the majority press gets away with focusing only on the party aspect of the gathering.

The Washington Post printed a piece that talked about the ingredients for a successful CBC party. Ho, hum.

Why not a piece about the ingredients for a successful brain trust? Why not some reporting on the range of issues addressed. There were panels on the environment, the foster care system, education, wealth, business development, criminal justice, global affairs and more. A highlight for me was visiting with students from four elementary and high schools that were organized by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

The panel’s task was to encourage them to consider careers in math and science. With a NASA astronaut, a math educator, an engineer, and this economist on the panel, the students got lots of reinforcement to consider untraditional careers. It was great to see young people gathered and open to learning.

Congressman Elijah Cummings always puts together a panel on youth, which is attended by young people from his congressional district in Baltimore. This year, Cora Masters Barry moderated the panel and brought her young people from D.C.’s Southeast Tennis and learning center. Four Bennett students, and hundreds of college students from other campuses, were in attendance.

While the cynical may say that the CBC conference is the “same old, same old,” it is interesting to view the ALC through the fresh eyes of our young people who are so eager to learn and to make a difference.

Women’s issues were also well represented. Melanie Campbell convened the Black Women’s Roundtable with an overflow crowd. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA) convened the International Black Women’s Policy Forum to explore the issue of health disparities.

Tony Brown once said that if the ALC were canceled for just one year, that money could be used to fund significant initiatives in Black America. He may be right. At the same time, I’d like to challenge the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to document some of the outcomes of the ALC, which might include legislation inspired, business deals closed, scholarships funded, students exposed. If the accomplishments were clearly documented, perhaps the mainstream press would talk purpose, not party, when they reference next year’s ALC.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.
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