There are times when silence is considered golden,
and there are times when being silent on the things that matter
becomes a matter of life and death. As African-Americans, there
are issues we simply cannot afford to be silent on, especially
when it comes to the effectiveness of those who seek to be our
representatives in Black Leadership.
Our ancestors knew the price of silence was too
high to pay, and therefore, they spoke loudly; whether protesting
the virulent racism they faced on a daily basis, or whether
they spoke poetic verses that showcased and highlighted either
pain or anguish, joy and triumph, or by simply keeping the faith
and hope that our time was going to come. So, in 1969, Black
America rejoiced, because it appeared that despite the assassination
of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, his much vaunted Dream
for African-Americans was going to be realized through the 13
African-American members of Congress who became the vanguard
of the Congressional Black Caucus.
From 1970 until 1994, when the Republicans ushered
in their odious "Contract with America" in the mid-year
elections, the Congressional Black Caucus for the most part
did their job in advancing the issues and concerns relevant
to Black America, and they also were very effective at raising
their voices in protest of social injustice, while living up
to their advertisement as "the conscience of the Congress."
As mentioned, 1994 was the year that the fractures
in Black Leadership within the Congressional Black Caucus began
to appear when Queens, New York representative, the Rev. Floyd
Flake, decided he liked what Newt Gingrich was offering better
than his own Caucus, and let it be known that he could be bought
with corporate money. Others, such as Reps. Al Wynn, William
Scott and even the younger ones, such as Artur
Davis, soon followed, without nary a peep in reprimand from
It has been downhill for the Congressional Black
Caucus ever since.
The current Chair of the CBC, Rep. Mel Watt (D-North
Carolina), as well as several CBC members, use the excuse that
because they are in the minority party in the House of Representatives
and the U. S. Senate, they can't do any more than make their
positions known to the opposition and Congressional leadership.
They don't take a position on any legislation unless there is
100% unanimity. With 20% of the CBC politically sleeping
with the enemy in terms of their voting
records, how does Watt achieve the unanimity the CBC needs
to function as a Caucus?
We African-Americans are literally being killed
by ineffective Black Leadership in the body of Congress that
advertises itself as the "conscience" of the Congress.
And when I say "killed" I am talking about the egregious
legislation that has passed through Congress in the past five
years (the Bankruptcy Bill, CAFTA, Estate Tax Repeal, No Child
Left Behind, authorization of billions of dollars to fight the
Iraq War) that has the most devastating effect on Black communities.
And they passed with assistance from those in the CBC who broke
their pledge to represent our best interests!
The CBC does us no favor when they engage in circular
firing squads of those within the Caucus that believe they have
an obligation, a duty, to provide the most effective representation
of the constituency that elected them. Which leads me to the
point of discussion in this column.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) is one member
of the CBC who has managed to shine like the brightly lit star
that she is. She has remembered the oath she took to uphold
the Constitution in providing representation not only to the
constituency she represents, but on a national scale as well.
For her commitment to truth, to justice, and to the American
Way insofar as it relates to the poor, the disenfranchised,
and the downtrodden, who are often African-Americans, she is
subjected to ridicule, scorn, verbal abuse, and being shunned
by members of her own Congressional Black Caucus.
We have seen McKinney subjected to being called
a "bitch" on the Floor of the House by former Representative
Ballenger (R-North Carolina) who was part of the North Carolinian
caucus that includes Rep. Watt. As far as what is on the written
record, nothing could be found to indicate that any of the male
members of the CBC made any attempt to defend McKinney from
such a scurrilous attack by a White supposed colleague, even
if they were in different political parties. In fact, Watt
is on the record excusing
Rep. Ballenger's outburst, and as far as we could research,
there is no record Ballenger was ever censured for his outburst,
which Roberts' Rules of Order, as well as Congressional House
Being called a "bitch" probably would
have taken down any female member of the House of Representatives
other than Cynthia McKinney. The fact that she returned to
Congress in 2004, may have surprised many, but not those of
us who know her. Even after the offense by Rep. Ballenger,
McKinney continued to often call for Congressional hearings
on issues that are of relevance to the African-American community,
such as the 2002 hearings she convened relating to the assassination
of Dr. King. As my resourceful colleague, Dr. Jared Ball, pointed
out to me, NO ONE in Congress wanted to have any kind
of discussion regarding Dr. King's assassination. Dr. Ball also
pointed out the mass absence of CBC members from the hearing.
It is ironic that in 2002, McKinney, facing a tough re-election
challenge from former Rep. Denise Majette, would continue to
engage in facilitating panels, hearings and discussions on subjects
most of her CBC colleagues will not go near with a ten-foot
When my colleagues and I decided we would do this
column as a way to honor Ms. McKinney for her hard work and
personal sacrifice, the word got out, and we received many,
many emails in support of her, and many that urged us to write
about everything McKinney suffered while she served in Congress
and during the two years she was out of office. We at CBC Monitor
believe that the DVD, "American
Blackout" is a documentary that provides a powerful
snapshot of just who Cynthia McKinney really is.
The CBC Monitor wants BC readers
to know just what Ms. McKinney faces in her CBC caucus-imposed
isolation, with few CBC members willing to stand with her.
Since McKinney's triumphant return to Congress
in January 2005, she has lobbied House Minority Leader Nancy
Pelosi for restoration of her seniority she is due as a fifth,
and now, sixth-term member of the House of Representatives.
To date, McKinney has been denied, while three White members
of Congress (two House members and one Senator, Democrat Frank
Lautenberg of New Jersey) who were absent from Congress for
from five to fifteen years, returned to Congress in 2004 and
their seniority was restored with minimum fuss. So why is McKinney
being denied restoration of her seniority?
Now, you might want to play the race card, and
there may be an element of truth to playing it. However, there
is something more sinister at work in this situation, and it
bears highlighting. As reported in the February
16, 2006 issue of BC, radio commentator
Jeff Blankfort of station KPOO, interviewed McKinney on July
12, 2005, when she stated:
"I was not successful in convincing Nancy
Pelosi that my seniority was worth restoring.
"I was not involved alone in that effort.
I am quite confident that there were hundreds, maybe thousands
of emails sent from literally every point across this country,
from the large urban areas of New York City, Chicago and San
Francisco to the still urban but less populated areas like
down here in Georgia and throughout the South. I know that
there were people all over this country who were interested
and who supported the reinstatement of my seniority.
"After all, it is exactly what happened
with returning Republicans who came back in the class of 2005,
who were sworn in with me. There was Dan Lungren of California,
who had been out of Congress 15 years or so, and he returned
to Congress as if he had not missed one day. That's because
the Republican leadership saw fit to restore his seniority
because they valued his experience.
"There was also Bob English from South
Carolina, a Republican, who returned after one term out of
Congress, just like me. He also was restored his seniority
by the Republican leadership. That was not accorded to me
and to the legions of people that supported me by Nancy Pelosi."
The BC article, which was first
published in San Francisco's SFBayView.com,
also indicated that because McKinney's seniority hasn't been
restored, she has limited staff and resources with which to
do her job. Now, if the Republican Party saw Dan Lungren's
return as being so valuable that his seniority was restored
after a 15 year absence from the House, why doesn't Pelosi view
McKinney's contributions to the Democratic Party as being equally
Blankfort didn't stop at interviewing McKinney.
He managed to catch up with House Minority Leader Pelosi at
a town hall meeting in San Francisco on July 14, 2005, and asked
her about the restoration of McKinney's seniority. That was
obviously a question Pelosi didn't see coming:
"…Pelosi was in San Francisco two days
later speaking at a packed town hall meeting at the Marina
Middle School in the wealthy Marina district, as far away
from Bay View Hunters Point as you can get without stepping
in the Bay. At what turned out to be an abbreviated press
conference, I told her what McKinney had said and asked her
why she hadn't given her seniority back when she was re-elected
to Congress. It was not a question she was anticipating.
"'As a matter of course,' she responded,
‘seniority is not given back when members come back to Congress.'
"I informed her that other members of Congress
who had been re-elected after leaving office had been given
their seniority and asked her who made the decision in McKinney's
case: ‘It's a decision of the steering committee of the leadership,'
Pelosi coolly replied. "And so, I said, it was decided
not to give Cynthia McKinney back her seniority, and that's
when Pelosi became a bit flustered.
"'Cynthia got … uh … Cynthia chose to leave
the…. She chose, she left Congress ... uh … she was voted
out,' Pelosi stammered, ‘But there's nothing, nothing there
that says, when members come back, that other members should
be disrupted in terms of their seniority.'
"Before I could ask her a follow-up question,
she thanked the members of the press and left the room…"
Someone needs to ask Pelosi why she became flustered
when confronted with the facts about restoring McKinney's seniority?
Someone's also going to have to ask the CBC Leadership
about its position on the restoration of their colleagues' seniority.
Now, remember, Congressman Watt told my colleague
and founder of CBC Monitor, Niyi Shomade-Amusu, and me at CBC
Weekend in September 2005, that where there's no unanimity,
the Caucus takes no position on an issue. Does that extend
to the restoration of the seniority status of a fellow CBC member
like Cynthia McKinney? It has been mentioned earlier in this
article that Mel Watt didn't come to McKinney's defense when
she was called a "bitch" by a White colleague, so
it would stand to reason that if he didn't bother to defend
McKinney when she was being verbally slandered and attacked,
he wouldn't have lifted a finger towards initiating any process
that would restore McKinney's seniority.
The treatment of McKinney regarding this most
important issue, the restoration of her seniority, should also
sound a clarion call to the other female members of the CBC
as well; that you are pretty much "ass out" should
you lose your seat, then regain your seat in the House, if the
current CBC leadership is any indication, not to mention that
you are not going to have your honor defended by male CBC members
if they do not believe your honor is worth defending, when you're
attacked by other House or Senate colleagues on the Congressional
Additionally, if this is what is passing as "Black
Leadership" on the part of our elected officials, we need
to question ourselves as to when did we start settling for such
ineffective leadership and a reluctance, if not outright arrogance,
on the part of CBC members, when groups like CBC Monitor begin
to demand accountability, since the CBC states they are ensuring
that the issues relevant to Black America are heard in Congress?
The greatest unanimity has come through struggle,
after discussion and debate. While there may have been internal
disagreement, people looked for common ground upon which to
stand together, and that is what they found. Since we
always choose to invoke the memory of Dr. King, we need to be
reminded that his greatest triumphs came after his greatest
struggle to get others to see, and agree with, his vision.
In fact, my equally esteemed colleague, Rhone Fraser, points
out in his article of March
16, 2006, that the greatest danger we face is being silent
as a means of keeping order and peace while keeping white "pseudo"
liberals or moderates, within their comfort zone.
Today, there is a reluctance - no, an outright fear
- on the part of current Black leadership to engage in the process
of struggle, like our forefathers did. There is no way that
the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus would be silent
on the important issue of restoration of a fellow colleague's
seniority, because they would have realized that they needed
their colleague, fully equipped and ready for battle. Therefore,
a battle to restore a colleague's seniority would have been
fought and won. Yet, the current leadership is so fearful of
engaging in the process of achieving true unanimity - based
- they are paralyzed in terms of taking action, and have acquiesced
to the directives of House Democratic Leader Pelosi, often to
the detriment of CBC members like Cynthia McKinney. Pelosi
has her own agenda, which does not include Black America, or
even the progressive communities of America, as shown by her
reluctance or failure to support brave members of Congress such
as Jack Murtha, the CBC "Dean" John Conyers, Louise
Slaughter, Lynn Woolsey as well as Cynthia McKinney, when they
introduce resolutions on the House floor calling for the following:
a hearing on the Downing Street Memos,
hearings on the slow response to aiding Katrina
or a comprehensive report detailing and highlighting
how Congress has become America's biggest brothel and her
pimps are K Street lobbyists.
Pelosi is not only Minority Leader, she is a member
of the progressive wing of the Democratic House Caucus,
but given her current behavior, we might want to verify if she's
still a member in good standing.
The process towards achieving true unanimity on
the part of the CBC must begin with taking a position on the
issue of McKinney's restoration of her seniority. We must ask
the right questions - and not only groups like CBC Monitor.
Here are the questions that other Black Leadership in the vanguard
need to be asked:
Let's start with Dorothy Height, the venerable
leader of National
Council of Negro Women. Sister Height, what is your position
on the restoration of McKinney's seniority? Are you willing
to take a public stand and call someone in the CBC Leadership
and light a fire under their behind to get them to address this
What about the other sisters in the CBC, apart
from Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (because
these sisters stand with and support McKinney); what is your
position on the restoration of McKinney's seniority? What have
you done to address this? Have you formed a "Band of Sisters"
and demanded McKinney have her seniority restored, because the
next time this happens, it could be one of you?
Have you brothers in the CBC even apologized
for failing to defend McKinney against the scurrilous attack
of Cass Ballenger? It's too late to call for censure; the old
bigot retired before you blinked, but an apology would be nice.
A call for the restoration of her seniority would be even nicer.
Black America cannot afford your silence on this
issue, or any other issue of relevance to us, for not only is
your silence poisonous, but it is very deadly. Put aside your
fear and become willing to engage in the process of discussion,
debate, and the struggle to agree. Rise to the occasion; if
you are victorious in what you may consider a small issue (restoration
of McKinney's seniority), that is the foundation upon which
to build to fortify and engage in battles in Congress on the
issues that matter most to African-Americans. Your voices need
to drown out the silence that threatens to be the downfall of
what remains of the democratic process.
In the next Issue: "When Being Silent
Speaks Loudly," Part II: How CBC leadership is complacent
in following House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's orders while
disregarding their obligations to their own districts. Leutisha
Stills can be reached at [email protected].
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