With the passing of New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne, America has lost a piece of black political history. He was, literally, the last of a dying breed.
Payne, 77, was the first African-American elected to Congress from New Jersey. His death leaves civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) as the sole black lawmaker remaining in Congress who was elected in the late 1980s. The freshman classes of the 100th Congress (1987-1989) and 101st Congress (1989-1991) had a total of six black representatives; it was a pivotal time for black politicians. The year 1988 marked Jesse Jackson’s historic presidential candidacy, when he won 11 primaries and 6.9 million votes, and gave his stirring “Keep Hope Alive” speech at the Democratic National Convention.
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The classes of Payne and Lewis were the last before the black political boom of the early 1990s, when the numbers of black Members of Congress increased dramatically. In the 101st Congress, 25 African-Americans served in the House of Representatives. In 1992 — when Bill Clinton was elected as president — 17 new black Members were elected to Congress, including 5 women. Moreover, from 1991 to 2007, 55 blacks were elected to Congress, 45 percent of the black politicians that have ever served in the legislative body.
The following is theGrio’s look at the Congressional Black Caucus class of 1988, and their accomplishments during and after Congress.
Mike Espy (Democrat, Mississippi 2nd District. Served from 1987-1993; born in 1953) was the first black elected to the U.S. House in over a century. A graduate of Tuskegee Institute and a political moderate, he resigned in 1993 to become Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture — the first African-American to hold the post. He served until 1994, when the White House pressured him to resign. In 1997, Espy was indicted for receiving improper gifts from businesses and lobbyists that fell under the jurisdiction of the USDA. He was acquitted of 30 corruption charges in 1998, in a trial with racial undercurrents.
Floyd H. Flake (Democrat, New York 6th District. Served from 1987-1997; born in 1945) is the senior pastor of the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Flake vacated his seat to devote his time to Allen AME. He is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative, market-oriented think tank. From 2002 until 2008, Flake also served as president of Wilberforce University in Ohio, amid allegations of financial mismanagement and an inflated salary.
John Lewis (Democrat, Georgia 5th District. Served from 1987-present; born in 1940) was born in Alabama, to sharecropper parents. A graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and Fisk University, Lewis has one of the most liberal voting records in Congress.
Lewis was involved in the civil rights movement as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and participated in the original Freedom Rides. The veteran civil rights activist was brutally beaten during civil rights protests in the 1960s, including the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in what became known as Bloody Sunday. In 1981, he held his first elected office as a member of the Atlanta City Council. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Lewis withdrew his support for Hillary Rodham Clinton and endorsed Barack Obama.
Kweisi Mfume (Democrat, Maryland 7th District. Served from 1987-1996; born in 1948) was born in raised in Baltimore as Frizzell Gray. During his tenure in Congress, he served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and was a champion for civil rights and affirmative action. Mfume resigned from office in 1996 to become president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), expanding the organization and successfully securing official United Nations status as a non-governmental organization (NGO). He headed the organization until 2004. In 2010, Mfume became executive Director of the National Medical Association.
Donald M. Payne (Democrat, New Jersey 10th District. Served from 1989-2012; born in 1934, died in office in 2012) was the first and only black member of Congress from New Jersey. Considered the most progressive lawmaker of the New Jersey delegation, Rep. Payne was a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, and member of the Education and Workforce Subcommittee. He died after a long battle with colon cancer. Payne also served as the first black president of the National YMCA.
Craig Anthony Washington (Democrat, Texas 18th District. Served from 1989-1995; born in 1941) was elected in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Mickey Leland’s death. In Congress, he was a staunch supporter for civil rights, and the rights of criminal defendants. Washington lost renomination in the 1994 Democratic primary to Sheila Jackson Lee, who still holds the seat. A graduate of Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University Law School, he currently practices law in Houston, Texas.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove