In 1971, twelve members of the United States House of Representatives and the delegate from Washington, D.C., founded the Congressional Black Caucus, in order to better represent the interests of black Americans. President Richard Nixon initially refused to meet with the Caucus, which in turn boycotted that year’s State of the Union address. When Nixon finally did agree to a meeting, the C.B.C. provided a statement of sixty-one recommendationsfor the “eradication of racism” in the United States.
The group, which has mostly been composed of Democrats, currently has forty-nine members. Last February, on the Senate floor, members of the C.B.C. protested the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. This month, Representative Cedric Richmond, the C.B.C.’s chairman, co-submitted a resolution to censure President Trump for his comments about “shithole” countries. (At the same meeting where Trump made these comments, he was,according to the Washington Post, “curt and dismissive, saying he was not making immigration policy to cater to the C.B.C. and did not particularly care about that bloc’s demands.”)
On January 10th, Bonnie Watson Coleman, who has served as the U.S. representative from New Jersey’s Twelfth Congressional District since 2015 and co-founded the Caucus on Black Women and Girls, e-mailed her colleagues at the C.B.C., inviting them to affix red pins emblazoned with the name Recy onto their clothing on January 30th, the day of Trump’s first State of the Union address. The buttons would be a tribute to Recy Taylor, a black woman who was kidnapped and raped by six white men, in Alabama, in 1944, and who was mentioned in Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes on January 7th. Watson Coleman hopes to attend the address with Rose Gunter, who is Taylor’s niece and was also Taylor’s caregiver until her death, last December, at the age of ninety-seven.
Watson Coleman’s office has ordered two hundred pins, which, she said, are meant to increase awareness about the particular vulnerability of black women to sexual assault, and to symbolize dissent against the President. Representative Maxine Waters, another C.B.C. member, who is boycotting the speech, will deliver an alternative address on BET shortly after the President’s. I recently spoke to Watson Coleman about the C.B.C.’s relationship to the Trump Administration. Her account has been edited and condensed.
“Trump came into the office as a racist. He didn’t even know what the Black Caucus was. The Black Caucus and President Obama may not have always agreed about whether or not he was moving fast enough, but there was still dignity and respect for who you were. One experience with Obama had to do with the H.B.C.U.s and seeking more support for them. I really appreciated his recognition of young black men, young black boys. My Brother’s Keeper. I just didn’t think that there was enough emphasis on black girls.
“Trump asked the journalist April Ryan, ‘Excuse me. Are they your friends? Can you set up a meeting with them?’ The C.B.C. had two invitations. One was accepted. It was determined that our leadership would go and not the full Congressional Black Caucus, because we didn’t want to be a photo op, like he did with the presidents of the H.B.C.U.s and then did nothing to advance the issues that are vitally important. We find ourselves right now in a very sad period, a very dangerous period, with a President who has no respect for women, who’s even admitted to assaulting women, who’s had sixteen women allege that he assaulted them.
“Shortly after the Golden Globe Awards, we were back in the office, down in D.C., and the Democratic Women’s Working Group said, ‘Let us wear black in solidarity with the women at the Golden Globes Awards.’ And, while we had no problem with that, the members of the Black Caucus, particularly women in the Black Caucus, recognized that there’s always this ‘and us’ situation as it relates to black women, and that, when we focus on the issues of the day that involve discrimination or assault against women, we’re not immediately thought of in the context of that suffering.
“Oprah mentioned Recy Taylor. I’m going to tell you that I didn’t know about her until Oprah Winfrey mentioned her. But I think that speaks to the fact that our history, our suffering, isn’t captured in the same way that non-minorities have captured their history, their suffering, their experiences, their contributions. So I intend to read up more about her. Because can you imagine? This woman was in her twenties when this happened to her. Six white men raped her, then cast her aside and threatened if she would tell anyone.
“The C.B.C. meeting on January 19th was called at the spur of the moment by the chairman, Representative Cedric Richmond. And we all gathered not too far from where we were having the general Caucus meeting. We discussed what we thought was an appropriate response to the President giving the State of the Union speech, given what his policies demonstrated to us, and how he has not responded to the document that was shared with him early on about the issues that were important to the Black Caucus. Because, if you recall, the President said to black people, when he was running for office, ‘What have you got to lose?’
“There’s been no opposition to the pins. Two of the co-chairs of theD.W.W.G., Lois Frankel and Brenda Lawrence, asked if we are going to have enough pins for them. I would expect at least a number of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the men in the Black Caucus, to wear a Recy Taylor button. There are some people who may not attend, but I think it’s important that I do attend. And I think that my attending, and wearing black, is not only respecting the institution but it is also showing this President, as he delivers his State of the Union address, that we are protesting, we are standing in solidarity with women. I like how the red shows up against the black.”