• February 11, 2021

Black History Month: Celebrating Black Representation in Congress

To honor Black History Month and to mark the 50th anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus this year, Capitol Canary proudly offers its first-ever Guide to Black Members of Congress.

In 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi was appointed to complete a term in the Senate. Revels held office for just one year, but his arrival marked the first time an African American served in the upper chamber. He was the very first Black member of Congress.  

That same year, just five years after the last shot was fired in America’s Civil War and the states ratified the 13th Amendment to officially end slavery, Joseph Rainey was elected to represent South Carolina’s First District. He was the first Black American elected to the House, and he served for almost a decade. 

Together, Revels and Rainey began a journey—perhaps better described as a struggle—for equal representation that continues today.

In an effort to support that struggle, to honor Black History Month and to mark the 50th anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus this year, Capitol Canary proudly offers its first-ever Guide to Black Members of Congress. By introducing and celebrating the 61 Black Americans serving in Congress, we hope to foster connections, encourage support and generate the type of engagement that can bring about lasting change. 

Great American Voices

While African Americans have served in Congress for more than 150 years, the United States has so far failed to achieve equal representation.

Overall, 162 Black Americans held seats in Congress from 1870 to 2019, according to a Congressional Research Service report last year. Yet, in that same time period, more than 12,000 people served in Congress, underscoring America’s struggle to form a truly representative government.   

Still, many who served in Congress were pioneers. Among them have been great American voices such as John Lewis, a civil rights icon who was one of the original Freedom Riders; helped organize the March on Washington and spoke before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech; and led the courageous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. 

Lewis once said that, “If someone had told me in 1963 that one day I would be in Congress, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’” He represented Georgia’s 5th District for 17 terms.  

Shirley Chisholm, who represented New York’s 12th District for seven terms, was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. In 1972, she became the first Black candidate seeking a major-party nomination for president and the first woman to seek the nomination from the Democratic Party. Her work helped pave the way for Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, to become America’s first Black president and Kamala Harris, the California senator, to become the first Black and the first female vice president. 

That tradition continued in last year’s election, when Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones became the first openly gay Black men to serve in Congress, both representing New York. Marilyn Strickland became the first Black woman to represent Washington state.

Yet, despite much progress, Black representation in Congress remains uneven. Black Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 58 seats are held by Black lawmakers in the House, which is about 13 percent. Yet in the Senate, Black Americans make up only three percent, just three seats in 100.

Supporting Black Lawmakers

At a time when America continues to struggle against systemic inequality wrought by a discriminatory past, representation could not be more important. Debates on police reform, immigration policy and many other issues with the potential to reshape America as a more fair and equal place lie ahead. Now more than ever, America needs Black leadership, and Black leaders need support.

Moreover, Americans are sharply aware of the need and ready to take action. Last year, as many as 26 million Americans protested over racial injustice, the largest movement ever on U.S. soil. Millions were also active online, supporting Black Lives Matter and many other causes. At its height last year, more than 52,000 people spoke out using the Capitol Canary platform every day—that’s 37 people every single minute. 

It wasn’t just voters who got active. Companies like Nike, Citigroup, Amazon, Ben & Jerry’s and many others spoke out about racial injustice and the need for reform. Capitol Canary was one of them, and we continue to stand with the Black community in calling for change in our country. As we wrote in June:

“Equality, safety and human rights are not partisan issues—in fact, they shouldn’t be issues at all. These are the very foundations of our society. There are not two sides to be argued. There is only right and wrong. As Americans, we must do what is right and uphold the ideals that should define the world’s greatest democracy.” 

It is in that spirit that we created the Guide to Black Members of Congress, so that organizations can help in their own way. Whether that means organizing an event for Black History Month, supporting Black lawmakers in campaigns or on issues or simply speaking out, companies, associations and nonprofits can play an important role. And, of course, we hope this spirit lasts far beyond the month of February. 

As Lewis wrote in his book Across That Bridge, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”