Congressman Charles Rangel, a senior member of the U.S. House of
Representatives and prominent African-American spokesman for civil
rights, has just published his memoirs. The 77-year-old New Yorker says
the title of the book, And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since, refers
specifically to Nov. 30th, 1950.
"Every challenge I've had in life, without even thinking about it, the
nightmare of Nov. 30 causes me never to have a bad day."
Rangel was 20 years old at the time, a high school dropout turned U.S.
Army enlistee that night. He found himself in the thick of the Korean
War, one of a handful of soldiers who barely survived a massive assault
by Communist Chinese soldiers on the Korean-Chinese border. Although it
was long ago, he says he'll never forget it.
Rangel recalls praying. "I asked my Lord, Jesus Christ – I said – 'I
know the odds are slim, but if you get me out of this one, you'll have
no problem with Charlie Rangel for life.'"
Rangel says the Lord seems to have been listening because, compared to
that horrific night in battle, he says he "hasn't had a bad day since."
He's not exaggerating. Rangel says the near-death experience helped him
develop a positive philosophy of living and an upbeat approach to the
twist and turns in the many years that lay ahead.
Awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for leading his men to safety
in Korea, the war hero returned home, finished high school, then went on
to college, law school and a career in public service, first in the New
York state legislature, then as a U.S. Congressman.
At the time a rising star in New York politics, Rangel admits being
somewhat indifferent, and frankly, ignorant, about the historic
importance of the protest march for the civil rights of black Americans
from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. The congressman confesses he
joined the march just to get his name in the newspapers.
"I got dressed up in a cashmere coat," Rangel recalls. "I had my
sunglasses on, went down there, took the pictures for the newspapers,
tried to get a cab to go back to New York, and it started to rain. And
these old folks, these marchers, started to put sheets of plastic around
their worn, torn shoes. I felt so guilty. I found myself marching in the
woods in the middle of the night, and I cursed every one of the 86
kilometers from Selma to Montgomery, wondering 'How in the hell did I
get involved in this!'"
Rangel says that at the time, he lacked the vision of civil rights
leaders like the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "I had no idea," he
points out candidly, "that as a result of that march, President Johnson
would sign the Voting Rights Act, and that as a result of that Act, my
district would allow its predominantly black residents to vote for the
first time, that I would become a member of Congress, start the
Congressional Black Caucus with 13 members and see it grow to 43 members
of the House and Senate. And it all started with a march I thought was
Rangel was first elected to Congress in 1970, representing a
congressional district in New York City that includes both the
economically-distressed neighborhood of Harlem and the wealthy Upper
West Side of Manhattan. Rangel has been re-elected 18 times since. He
rose to national prominence on the House Judiciary Committee when it
voted in 1974 to impeach President Richard Nixon for obstruction of
justice, abuse of power and other constitutional crimes during the
outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, Rangel says that some of his
saddest days involve going to military funerals in his district and
talking to grieving parents of fallen soldiers. He recalls one man who
"begged me, as he cried for his son, to say that 'our government was
proud of him and that he was a hero.' I made it abundantly clear,"
Rangel says, "'that when that flag of the United States goes up, our
president automatically becomes, for those in the service, the commander
in chief. The commander in chief expects you to give your life for your
country.' This brave young man did just that."
Congressman Rangel recently introduced a measure that would require all
young Americans to serve in the military or the civilian sector, which
would be a major shift from today's all-volunteer military.
Rangel has a ready smile, and a gregarious back-slapping manner with
friends and foes alike. Earlier this year, he assumed chairmanship of
the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over
childcare programs, unemployment benefits as well as taxes and other key
revenue-raising measures. It's a powerful legislative seat, one Charles
Rangel says he'll use to help lift up America's poor and keep making
history as one of America's most successful politicians.