"The gains made under the Voting Rights Act must be preserved amid these threats to turn the clock back," declared Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who spent part of her childhood in Texas. "We have to be vigilant because all would be lost if left up to the tea-party Republicans."
Former Rep. Allen West, the lone Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2011 and 2012, called blaming the GOP a "cop-out." The caucus should get its priorities straight, he said, and spend more time raising awareness about teen pregnancy and promoting school choice.
"I think the challenge for the CBC, the NAACP, and other groups is whether their priorities are in line with what's plaguing the black community," West said. "If you want to expand the dependency society, that's not what Republicans or conservatives or even the black community believes in."
The Senate's sole African American -- Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina -- chooses not to participate in the CBC.
"I'm not a member because ultimately I believe I get more done and that we're better off not joining organizations that create lines of delineation," said Scott, who was appointed in December by Gov. Nikki Haley to serve out Jim DeMint's term. "They certainly have some players with influence, but ultimately the CBC's positions are inconsistent with where I think our country needs to head. It's a philosophy that the growth of government is going to make our people stronger and our people better, and I don't think the answer is yes."
The CBC has had its successes over the years. It pushed for anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa in the mid-1980s, helped establish King's birthday as a federal holiday, and was a driving force behind getting assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
More recently, Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said the caucus has been effective on some lower-profile issues, such as making more families eligible for college loans, compensating black farmers who faced discrimination, and discouraging prosecutors from seeking harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
"There's only so much we can do individually, but there's a great deal we can do as a caucus," Wilson said. "You can't always do it in the public and in the press but you have to stick together." She sighed and added, "It's not easy."
Exacerbating the frustrations felt by some black Democrats is a sense of responsibility to carry on the legacy of the civil-rights movement amid painful memories of segregation and ongoing racial inequities. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, who hails from one of the birthplaces of the movement, noted that the median income for a family of four in her district, which is 64 percent black, is $30,327.
"Growing up in Selma, Alabama, you grow up very conscious of the fact that you are a beneficiary of the movement and that the best way you could strengthen the legacy of those whose shoulders you stand on is to continue to press for social and economic change," Sewell said. "It's a full-circle moment for me, because the issues that affected the district when I was a college intern are still the issues now, 28 years later. It's unacceptable to be in an institution where you can make a difference, and yet we're not addressing the major issues of the day."
What keeps her going? The portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1969, hanging in the Capitol. "I get a pep in my step because there's no way my journey is as hard as what she faced," said Sewell, whose mother was the first African-American to serve on the Selma City Council. "I can in no way be tired."