This year’s Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference was characterized by a sense of urgency. The Caucus, determined to get Sen. John Kerry D-Mass.) elected president of the United States, was eager to address the key issues affecting African-Americans. The CBC, which helped Kerry put together his urban agenda, argues that Kerry’s election will move those issues to the forefront of policy making and create strategies to address them. But CBC members who met with Kerry during the Legislative Conference to discuss the status of his campaign emerged from those talks somewhat subdued. “We think that there is still a lot to be done,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the CBC, said at the time. “This is an election that Kerry cannot win. He cannot win without a large segment of the African-American community coming up. He needs to talk to African-Americans and let them know that he understands the issues that we have to address and that he has a practical plan to deal with them,” he said.
The theme of the CBC conference, “Defining the Moment and the Movement,” emphasized the critical nature both of the elections and the state of Black America, conference co-chair, Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), says. “We believe this is a defining moment in the lives of Americans and we need to move forward and define that moment—what is happening in the lives of African-Americans across this country . . . what are our issues, who’s defined [them] or is helping us with those issues,” she says. The movement, she adds, is how we “take ourselves from point A to point B” and requires that people of color do all they can to address those unique issues. It’s an effort that goes beyond prayer, Jones notes. “I’m a great believer in prayer, but to think that God is going to do everything while you do nothing is not faith but superstition,” she says.
Issues that took center stage during the conference in Washington, D.C., which ran Sept.8-11, were voting rights, the federal budget, access to health care, the justice system’s sentencing and mandatory minimums laws and homeland defense, all of which the CBC deemed important in the presidential vote and beyond. A high-level panel on education called for increased parental involvement and attention to factors that lead to low educational achievement, such as poor nutrition and health care. Panelists included actor-comedian Bill Cosby; author Maya Angelou; Jawanza Kunjufu, of African American Images; Ron Ross, Ross Education Group; Terah Venzant, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Deborah Jewell-Sherman, superintendent, Richmond, Va., Public Schools; Gary Orfield, Harvard University; and Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund.
A panel on health care focused on several subjects, including access to health care, prescription drugs for senior citizens, the disparity in the quality of and access to health care for people of color and the importance of mental health. Equally important in the discussions was “how do we help ourselves to deal with the disparity because our lifestyles and our conduct can impact the status of our health,” says Jones.
The great challenge immediately after the CBC conference is “to register people to vote and then . . . give them a reason to vote,” Cummings says.