With the death Friday night of John Lewis — nine months to the day after Elijah Cummings’ passing — the Congressional Black Caucus faces a profound moment: the generation that built the group into a powerhouse is slowly fading away.
There are fewer members now who served in the frontlines of the civil rights battles in the 1960s and 1970s. Their experience — seared into the consciousness of every American – is being lost at a particularly fraught time for race relations in America. The CBC has been leading the push for societal change as the United States grapples with decades of racial violence and injustice toward Black Americans, and now must do so without its most revered member.
Lewis also died the same day as the Rev. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian, another iconic figure from the civil-rights movement.
“[John] Conyers, then Cummings, and now John Lewis. Each one, they’re leaving a hole from their legacy and what they contributed. I don’t know if it will ever be replaced. It puts a lot of burden on those of us still living, it compels us to do more,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said in an interview Saturday.
"Every generation has its time," added Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). "As much as we mourn the passing of John Lewis, and C.T., and all of those others that were major voices in the movement, a new generation is rising up. I’ve watched these young people in the streets, I listen to their leaders, and they are now finding their way to take their place. And we welcome that."
The CBC is a key faction within the House Democratic Caucus, and the group’s influence has only grown since its founding nearly 50 years ago. But like the Democratic Party itself, the upper ranks of the CBC are filled with lawmakers in their 70s and 80s.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is about to turn 80. Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calf.) is 81. Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson is 84 (D-Texas). Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is 83 (D-D.C.). Other committee chairmen are their 70s, including Bobby Scott and Bennie Thompson.
This may not stand out in a party where presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is 77 and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80. But those generational divides are felt more acutely within the CBC, whose members often look to the moral authority of Lewis or Clyburn, who took part in the civil rights protests in the 1960s and used the practice of non-violence to achieve political victories as advocated by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Losing him now puts the pressure on all of us that he left behind to carry out his legacy, to take the baton — because this is a relay race — and he passed the baton onto all of us last night,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said in an interview. “We all need to feel the weight of that.”
“When I think about John, I think about a scripture in Genesis…‘There were giants in the earth in those days,’” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a pastor. “John, at a whopping 5’9”, was the tallest person in Congress and never, ever tried to call attention to his height.”
In the 33 years since Lewis was first elected, Black leaders in Congress have amassed more power than ever before. Clyburn and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) are in the upper tier of party leadership, and CBC members lead influential panels including Financial Services, Education and Labor and Homeland Security. Before he died, Cummings was the chairman of the Oversight Committee.
The ranks of the CBC have grown substantially too, with nine new members added in 2018 alone. Many arrive in Congress with their own stories about police brutality, systemic racism and the huge gaps between America’s hopes and its reality. That includes members like Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who lost her son in a racially motivated murder and became a key voice in this year’s policing reform debate.
“The Congressional Black Caucus is mourning deeply because of the wound of the painful loss of the legendary John Lewis,” Jeffries said in an interview Saturday. “We stand on his broad shoulders, inspired by his life story, his legacy and the words of wisdom he imparted to us all.”
Lewis’ death is a gutting loss for Congress writ large as well. Lewis was one of the few members so revered that leaders and members in both parties would stop and listen to what he had to say even though they might not support his position. Cummings was that kind of member, as was the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The late Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a hero of the Vietnam War who died in May, was also enormously respected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, despite often hardline conservative views.
Lewis’ influence was on full display in one floor debate in 2012, when then-Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) proposed an amendment to cut funding for voting rights enforcement. Lewis, who had been watching the debate from his office in the Capitol, quickly went to the floor to deliver a powerful rebuttal, recalling that “friends of mine, colleagues of mine” died for the right to vote.
Within minutes, that Republican returned to the floor with a full-throated apology, and then withdrew his amendment.
Yet as American politics has become more nakedly partisan in recent decades, so has Congress. The number of lawmakers who can rise above the partisanship — or seemingly want to — gets smaller every year. A large portion of junior lawmakers seem more interested in scoring points on cable TV and social media than they do in legislating.
And the Republican Party, led by a populist president who is regularly criticized for espousing openly nationalistic rhetoric, has also made it more difficult to make deals. As the GOP has lurched ever more rightward under President Donald Trump, Democrats have moved farther to the left.
Lewis openly called Trump a “racist,” and he boycotted the president’s inauguration and speeches to Congress, as have a number of Democrats. Lewis even went so far as to refuse to attend the 2017 opening of a civil-rights museum in Mississippi because Trump would be there.
On Saturday afternoon, Trump tweeted: “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to [him] and his family.”
Yet House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — one of dozens of members over the years who traveled to Selma, Ala., to reenact the famed 1965 march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge — was among the score of Republicans who offered heavy praise for Lewis.
“It was a privilege to call John a friend,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I admired him and will miss him. His life and legacy of patriotism will endure for as long as America does.”
Clyburn, who was Lewis’ friend for nearly 60 years, spoke fondly of his colleague and fellow civil-rights activist. The two men’s late wives, Emily and Lillian, were both librarians and became close friends. Clyburn said he could hear them talking on the phone sometimes, gossiping away about their famous spouses.
Yet Clyburn said he and Lewis both understood that the “only constant in life was change,” and that it’s right that others will take up the cause they dedicated their lives to.
“I know full well that I’m gonna leave the scene soon, and I want to make sure that when I do, that every young person I’ve been in contact feels that they’re much better off having been a part of my life, and mine of theirs,” Clyburn said.