A race for change

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At the first mention of president-elect Barack Obama, the entire crowd stood and cheered.

Once the cheering subsided and discussion began, U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., the House Majority Whip, recalled telling his children about their potential.

"When I told them they could be anything they wanted to be, I could tell they didn't really believe it. And I didn't really believe it, either," he said. "But on election night, we were all shedding tears of vindication for all those who kept faith in the American system. Nov. 4, 2008, was a day of vindication."

The impact the new president will have on the challenges faced by the black community and the legislative efforts of the Black Congressional Congress dominated the discussion moderated by Leslie Stahl, the "60 Minutes" correspondent.

Caucus members agreed the election of the nation's first African-American president is a tidal shift in the history of the nation and race relations. Still, they acknowledged, the issues facing people of color remain dramatic, troubling, and resistant to any quick fix.

U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said that when Obama won, "I saw hundreds of people in my hometown celebrating. It wasn't quite Harlem, but we had just as much fun."

"On that night, we were simply trembling," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. "We were light-footed, like a burden was lifted off of our shoulders. I thought of all the babies that are going to be named Obama."

The discussion turned to more practical matters, such as how would the caucus approach a former member of the group that has taken up residence in the White House.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., joked that Obama might be referred to as "Brother President," then noted that he would be treated with all honor and respect due his position.

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"He is our president of America, and we will give him all due respect," Lewis said. "He is not just our president, he is the leader of all Americans, the president of black Americans, Latino Americans — all Americans."

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., explained that it is inaccurate to think that all black people think alike, noting that the caucus frequently engages in "spirited discussion" and "vigorous discourse." Johnson said the president-elect is not likely to agree with all the legislation that comes from the caucus, but that he is more likely to discuss the issues at length than the current administration has been.

"I think we'll keep doing what we've been doing, but we'll have more help from the White House," said Rep. Diane E. Watson. D-Calif.

Stahl wondered if the caucus would have a hard time steering their left-leaning agenda toward the philosophical center, given Obama's pledge to be a centrist leader.

Members said there are still vast issues of disparity in education, health care, imprisonment, income and joblessness in the black community that must be addressed.

"I don't see anything left about putting people to work," said Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. "I don't see anything left about feeding people who are hungry, about providing energy to people who are cold. Our agenda isn't one-sided, it is an American agenda."

Thompson said the Congressional Black Caucus has always considered itself the "conscience of America."

"That's why we formed this caucus, to be the conscience of our Congress," he said.

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 664-4995.


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