The number of blacks serving in Congress could grow as much as 50 percent after the general elections Nov. 3, creating one of the largest potential voting blocs in Congress.
But that's only if blacks there have the will to act in concert -- and the information they need to do so effectively. And that is the role of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said Quentin R. Lawson, the organization's new executive director.
Mr. Lawson said the combined effects of redistricting and the public's current anti-incumbency mood mean that over a dozen new black members could join the 26 now serving in Congress.
The added strength offers the Congressional Black Caucus the opportunity to focus attention on particular issues, including the lack of parity in educational opportunities, the continued need for minority business development, and the crises in the availability and quality of health care for everyone.
"The Caucus doesn't always vote together and there is no reason why they should vote as a bloc on every issue," Mr. Lawson said. "But there are some issues that are of particular interest to black Americans. If the Caucus does not coalesce around those issues endemic to blacks, no one else will."
Mr. Lawson, 59, was a city school administrator and the city director of human development under former mayor William Donald Schaefer. A resident of Randallstown, he served as executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators before his Sept. 8 appointment as head of the foundation.
He is an example of a facet of black leadership largely ignored during the soul-searching and breast-beating earlier this year after Dr. Benjamin Hooks announced his intention to step down as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Dr. Hooks' resignation sparked a great discussion on whether black leaders and organizations were still relevant to the struggles of the black community. Surveys of black opinion strongly suggested that such organizations were sadly out of touch with the black community's need for economic and political development.
But, typically, the whole debate ignored the fact that black leadership has gotten broader, deeper, and more specialized. While the traditional civil rights organizations and their leaders continue to focus -- as they should -- on racial injustice, other institutions headed by men such as Mr. Lawson formulate strategies for self-empowerment. The groups do not compete; they work together. And together, they continue to make remarkable progress.
For instance, when the foundation conducted its 22nd annual Legislative Weekend in Washington, beginning Sept. 23, the event brought together some 15,000 participants from all over the country. In attendance were the 26 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, state and local elected officials, businessmen, academics, celebrities, and average citizens.
Mr. Lawson described the gathering as the "single event in the United States where the most powerful collage of African American leadership can come together. This is the most representative event there is."
Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former basketball superstar, was even more succinct.
"You represent the most successful black people in the world," said Mr. Johnson at a fund-raising banquet during the legislative weekend.
The event was important enough to attract Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, who on Saturday promised blacks "full participation, full partnership" in his administration. (President George Bush also was invited but apparently decided there was no sense going there and making promises he did not intend to keep.)
To Mr. Lawson, the grass-roots, nuts-and-bolts work done in some 50 workshops during the conference was more important than any speeches. Participants at those sessions examined issues ranging from how to increase black voter turnout, to improving trade relations between African American businesses and Africa.
Out of the workshops will come strategies for the future, Mr. Lawson promised, and out of those strategies will come change.