Augustus F. “Gus” Hawkins was a legislator, an advocate for children and working families, and a statesman. He died at the age of 100 on November 10th. We mourn his passing and celebrate his caring and productive life. Reserved and unassuming, he was a passionate and committed fighter for the expansion of social and economic opportunities for all Americans. He worked tirelessly for quality education, good jobs at good wages, fair housing and civil rights. He helped advance many of the laws and policies that have improved the living standards of millions of children, people of color and low-income families.
For 55 years, Gus skillfully represented the people of Los Angeles, first as a member of the California Assembly, from 1935 to 1962, and later as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1963 to 1991. He was a man for the political seasons of his time. He became an assemblyman when our nation was plunged into the depths of the Great Depression and while discriminatory laws, policies and practices against African Americans and other people of color were pervasive, not just in the South but in California as well. It was common for stores to display signs reading, “We Do Not Solicit the Negro Trade.”
But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal held out the promise of change. In 1934, Gus, only 27, saw his chance to help overthrow the regressive forces of racial inequality and economic oppression. Running on a promise to cut in half the streetcar fare in Los Angeles, he defeated Frederick M. Roberts, a Republican and the California Assembly’s first African American member. Fighting for pocketbook concerns of working people was not new to the young assemblyman. While a student at UCLA, Gus got involved in the “Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work” campaign, which challenged Los Angeles merchants who refused to hire Blacks.
In the California Assembly, he introduced and fought for legislation to ensure fair housing, fair employment practices, a disability insurance measure and workers’ compensation for domestic workers. One of his proudest achievements was the enactment of a bill to establish child-care centers in California. He built a reputation as an effective leader and in 1959 narrowly missed being elected Assembly Speaker by two votes.
After the 1960 census, a new majority-Black congressional district was formed in the Watts community of Los Angeles. Gus won the seat in 1962 and became the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from his state, raising the total number of Black members of Congress to five. Taking office in 1963, he arrived in Washington in time to roll up his sleeves and join the fight to win passage of major antidiscrimination legislation. Gus introduced the bill that included the provisions for Title VII, the equal employment section in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. That measure established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the chief federal agency to combat employment discrimination.
Rising to chair the powerful House Education and Labor Committee, Gus was not a man who could be bought by powerful corporate interests. He fought tirelessly for legislation that working families needed, including increased funding for elementary, secondary and postsecondary education, and legislation to expand programs for the disadvantaged and bilingual instruction. He was a big supporter of preschool programs and a constant champion of incremental raises in the minimum wage.
Unlike many of his peers, Gus was not a fiery orator who would get a lot of “Amens” when he spoke. Instead, his pragmatic and quiet determination provided a model for getting things done when protest turned to politics. He believed in coalition building and looked for common ground even among adversaries. He was famous for crossing the aisle to work with Republicans to craft legislation that he knew would benefit most low-income Americans. He never abused his power and was careful to maintain the integrity of the process by providing opportunities for opposition voices to be heard. We greatly need a resurrection of that kind of statesmanship on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
In the 1970s, with the growth of unemployment especially among African Americans, Gus courageously drafted the Full Employment bill designed to reduce unemployment and inflation. Co-sponsored by then Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Humphrey-Hawkins bill passed in 1978 with the goal of bringing down unemployment to 4 percent by 1983 while relying on the federal government as the employer of last resort. Regrettably, it was watered down and never enforced. In the 1980s, his last decade in Congress, with a new reactionary wind blowing through Washington, some of his greatest challenges were to hold on to important gains secured in the 1960s and ’70s. He retired from Congress after 28 years in 1990, passing the baton to Rep. Maxine Waters whom he had mentored early in her political career.
Although he is no longer physically with us, all who go to work every day and struggle to put food on the table and keep a roof over the heads of their children and get them a decent education owe Gus Hawkins a debt of gratitude for his dedicated, untiring work. I feel so blessed to have known him and to have been tutored by this humble and effective man whose struggle for social and economic justice will be remembered for generations to come.
For more information on the Children’s Defense Fund, go to http://staging.childrensdefense.org/