African American leadership expands in U.S. Congress


Blacks now chair many powerful committees and subcommittees, including Ways and Means, Homeland Security, Housing and Investigations.

President-elect Barack Obama last weekend announced a public works construction program as part of his economic recovery program that he hopes to begin shortly after he takes office in January. During the October 13 Congressional Black Caucus Institute town hall meeting in Minneapolis, U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) also proposed a government-funded works program.

“If businesses are laying off, then the only real hope is some kind of public funded entity,” Thompson explained. “We can do that by funding school modernization programs and other kinds of infrastructure improvement so that the chronic unemployed or the recently laid off can be brought back.”

Obama’s plan also includes work on schools, improving sewer systems and mass transit, and creating “green jobs.”

“There are so many projects that we need to be building on that we have delayed for too long,” added Thompson, who begins his ninth term as a congressman in January. “Construction — whether it is residential, commercial, or whether it is roads, water and sewer — all adds to the economy.”

He reflected back to when the U.S. government operated a public works program during the 1930s. “The street that I live on in Mississippi was actually built by my father during the Depression because our government created [a jobs] program back then to put people back to work,” he recalled.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri), who also spoke at the town hall event, noted that while most of the media coverage was devoted, as expected, to Obama’s candidacy and subsequent election as the first Black U.S. president, not enough attention was directed to the Black leadership in Congress. It was “a hidden story,” the Kansas City congressman pointed out.

“You would think that [since] we probably have 15 national Black magazines and hundreds of Black newspapers, we would be able to get the information out about what really matters. On most of the magazine covers we see Oprah [Winfrey], Michael Jackson, [and other] celebrities. But I am suggesting that we see on the cover [longtime U.S. Congressmen] John Conyers, Charlie Rangel or Bennie Thompson.”

“For the broader community,” added Thompson, “many of them don’t want people to know that Black folk chair committees.”

“I am not even sure that people realize that in the aftermath of 9/11, an African American [Thompson] ends up as chair of homeland security,” noted Cleaver, who recently was elected first vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus for the 111th Congress.

Joked Thompson, “It’s tough being the chairman of a committee who just happens to be African American with a beard who sounds a little funny, and not get targeted every now and then when you go through the airport.”

Rep. Thompson previously served on the Agriculture, Budget and Small Business Committees before he was named Homeland Security Committee chairman.

“He’s a brilliant man who really lays it all out for the American people every day,” Rep. Keith Ellison said of Thompson. “He is a mentor for me and many others.”

“I am privileged to be chair of the committee,” surmised Thompson. “I am one of three Black members of the Congressional Black Caucus who chair a full committee, [and] there are 17 of us who chair subcommittees.”

This includes Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Charles Rangel; Housing Committee Chair Rep. Maxine Waters, and Rep. Melvin Watts, who chairs the Committee on Investigations, along with Education Subcommittee Chair Rep. Danny Davis. Ellison and Cleaver are two of nine Black members serving on the House Financial Services Committee.

Thompson, who has been in public service for 40 years, pointed out that his committee “handles 22 agencies within Homeland Security, immigration and customs enforcement, Coast Guard, transportation security and federal air marshals — all those people now are under our jurisdiction. Our mission is to keep the homeland safe, but also be able to respond to natural disasters.”

He also expressed concerns about people of color and others sometimes being unfairly judged.

“I am a Southerner, and I got stopped by the police when I was a college student because I was Black,” said Thompson. “I got stopped in other situations. I am sensitive to that, and I want our security system to not single people out because of how they look.

“So, we have pressed hard on protection of civil rights and civil liberties,” Thompson concluded. “As long as I am chair, we never will have a department that picks on people because of the color of their skin, or their religion or national origin.”

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