KC Johnson

Black Politics before Obama

Black Americans in Congress website: http://baic.house.gov


Audio files:

President Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell, 1 March 1965, 9.32pm, discussing the fate of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

President Johnson: Hello?

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell: How’s my friend?

President Johnson: [stonily] Fine, Adam.

What the hell’s been happening to your [Education and Labor] Committee? I thought you told me two months ago that you were going to pass a [education] bill for me.

Powell: That’s right. Well, what happened: all hell’s broken loose, because—

President Johnson: Well, now, what the hell are you blackmailing me on a—

Powell: That’s not—

President Johnson: —four hundred . . . Well, hell, you didn’t—[because] you want a $400,000 appropriation for you, we couldn’t pass a billion, two hundred million [dollar funding bill] for the schoolkids.

Now, you know I’m for you, and you know that I’m going to help you any way I can. I’ve got nothing to do with what you’re doing in the House investigation [of Powell’s personal finances]. But you damn near defeated the best education bill I’ve got. And I hope you’re going to be proud of it.

Powell: No. Now, you know your Appalachia bill, that there is—

President Johnson: Well, now, Appalachia ain’t got a damn thing to do with you. If you handle your committee and let us handle the other one!

Powell: Yeah, but there’s a clause in there, Mr. President—

President Johnson: There’s a clause that’s been in there for a long time.

And if you’re going to let [Ohio congressman William] Ayres [the committee’s ranking Republican] and [Oregon congresswoman] Edith Green [a conservative Democrat] lead you off the reservation, well, then I ran for nothing last year—

Powell: No—

President Johnson: [continuing] With 15 million votes. If you’re going to tie up this Congress, and screw it up—which you’ve done for three weeks, by running off [to Bimini, in the Bahamas] till you got a 400,000 [dollar] appropriation—why, we never can get anywhere.

And you defeat this [bill], and you hold it up, and you delay it, and you get us in this kind of shape, why, we can’t pass anything.

And that’s all right. But I think you’ll beat a hell of a bunch of your liberal Democrats [in the 1966 midterm elections]. I’m going to be here—it’s not going to bother me. But I just sure thought I had better leadership on that committee than what I’ve got without even talking.

Powell: Well—

President Johnson: And I’m awfully disappointed. Just very disappointed.

Powell: Now, Mr. President, don’t you think I have an entitlement to—

President Johnson: [forcefully] No, I don’t think you’re entitled to a damn thing that you did.

I think you told me, and looked me straight in the eye—

Powell: Mm-hmm.

President Johnson: [continuing] And said, “I’ll report this bill, and I’ll get it on the floor.” And you didn’t do it.

Powell: [By] March 1st.

President Johnson: And you did not do it.

Powell: It was [by] March 1st, because—

President Johnson: Well, Adam—

Powell: It was March—

President Johnson: [voice rising] No. Oh, hell no, you didn’t say till March 1st. you told me you were going to do it. And then you ran off for three weeks and they couldn’t even locate you . . . And your people [African-Americans] are being damn well taken care of in it [the bill].


President Johnson: Hey, listen: if you can’t trust me on Appalachia, you damn sure can’t trust an amendment, or the Secretary of Commerce, or anybody else.

Powell: Mm-hmm. Yeah—

President Johnson: If there’s anything that’s going to happen in Appalachia that’s anti-Negro, I won’t let it happen. Period.



congress map

North Carolina's "majority-minority" House districts

North Carolina's "majority-minority" House districts


Former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor, California, 1982

Former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor, California, 1982

Virginia's Douglas Wilder, first African-American elected governor (1989)

Virginia's Douglas Wilder, first African-American elected governor (1989)

Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, first African-American woman elected to the Senate, 1992

Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, first African-American woman elected to the Senate, 1992


Barbara Jordan, 1976 Democratic National Convention, keynote address:

Jesse Jackson, 1988 Democratic National Convention speech, conclusion:

Clarence Thomas confronts the Senate Judiciary Committee, 1991:

Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic National Convention, keynote address


I. Early Generation (1960s/1970s)

1. Machine Politicians (Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, African-Americans as part of urban Democratic machines; Powell and black political power; national prominence; committee chairmanships; scandal and expulsion; defeat)

2. A Different Mold (Shirley Chisholm and outsiders’ approach; presidential bid; Barbara Jordan: background and election, role in Watergate hearings, 1976 Democratic keynote speaker, approach to politics, Senate or national bid?, decision to retire) “I am neither a black politician nor a woman politician. Just a politician, a professional politician.”

II. The 1980s

1. The Bradley/Wilder Effect (Bradley background; California demography; polling lead and theories on result; Wilder background; built-in advantages—abortion decision, lieutenant governorship; polling lead and theories on result)

2. Majority-Minority Districts (NAACP and new interpretation of Voting Rights Act; peculiar political alignment; Court willingness—mid-1980s on; effects—increase in black (and Hispanic) House membership; “ghettoization” of minorities?; inward-looking House campaigns: Bobby Rush)

III. Grievance Politics

1.  Jackson & Sharpton (Jackson background; token 1984 bid; gearing up for 1988—strengths and weaknesses; brief flirtation with frontrunner’s position; demands on Dukakis and change in Democratic nominating rules; Sharpton as even more extreme version?

2. Thomas (background—Holy Cross, Yale Law, role of religion; affirmative action as harmful to talented minorities; movement into Reagan administration; Marshall resignation and nomination to Court; emergence of Anita Hill allegations; reaction and confirmation; subsequent performance)

3. New Generation

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