Augustus Hawkins

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Augustus Hawkins
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from California
In office
January 3, 1963 – January 3, 1991
Preceded byEdgar W. Hiestand (redistricted)
Succeeded byMaxine Waters
Constituency21st district (1963–1975)
29th district (1975–1991)
Member of the California State Assembly
from the 62nd district
In office
January 7, 1935 – January 3, 1963
Preceded byFrederick Madison Roberts
Succeeded byTom Waite
Personal details
Augustus Freeman Hawkins

(1907-08-31)August 31, 1907
Shreveport, Louisiana, U.S.
DiedNovember 10, 2007(2007-11-10) (aged 100)
Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Pegga Smith (1945–1966)
Elsie Hawkins (1977–2007)
EducationUniversity of California, Los Angeles (BA)

Augustus Freeman Hawkins (August 31, 1907 – November 10, 2007) was an American politician of the Democratic Party who served in the California State Assembly from 1935 to 1963 and the U.S. House Of Representatives from 1963 to 1991. Over the course of his career, Hawkins authored more than 300 state and federal laws, the most famous of which are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. He was known as the "silent warrior" for his commitment to education and ending unemployment.[1]

Early and personal life[edit]

Hawkins was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the youngest of five children, to Nyanza Hawkins and Hattie Freeman. In 1918, the family moved to Los Angeles.[2][3] Hawkins graduated from Jefferson High School in 1926, and received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1931.[4] After graduation, he planned to study civil engineering, but the financial constraints of the Great Depression made this impossible. This contributed towards his interest in politics, and his lifelong devotion to education. After graduating, Hawkins operated a real-estate company with his brother and studied government.[5] While serving in the California State Assembly, Hawkins married Pegga Adeline Smith on August 28, 1945. Smith died in 1966, and Hawkins later married Elsie Taylor in 1977.[6] After retiring from Congress, he stayed in the Washington area because his wife preferred it, living there until his death, which came two months after hers.[2]

An African American of mixed-race ancestry, Hawkins was very light-skinned and reportedly resembled his English grandfather.[5] Throughout his life, he was often assumed to be of solely white ancestry, although he refused to pass as white.[7][2]

Political career[edit]

State Assembly[edit]

Hawkins in the Assembly

Augustus Hawkins succeeded Republican Frederick Madison Roberts who served in the California Assembly for16 years. Black representation was so limited that "the black strategy for gaining political power was to exercise influence within the Democratic Party through voting for, and lobbying, white politicians."[8] Aside from Hawkins, "Los Angeles blacks had no other political representative in city, county, state, or federal government."[8]

Hawkins was part of a more general shift by African Americans away from the Republican and towards the Democratic Party.[9] Unlike the majority of African Americans, he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign for president in 1932. Hawkins favored measures such as the New Deal, which was wildly popular in the United States at large and the African-American community in particular. Roosevelt would go on to be the first Democratic president to win the black vote, in 1936. In 1934, Hawkins supported the more controversial 1934 California gubernatorial election of Upton Sinclair, a socialist. Although Sinclair lost, Hawkins defeated Republican Frederick Madison Roberts, the great-grandson of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson and the first African American in the California State Assembly. Hawkins would serve as a Democratic member of the Assembly from 1935 until 1963; by the time of his departure, Hawkins was the Assembly's most senior member, as Roberts was before him.

Hawkins's district was primarily Latino American and African American. During his time in the Assembly, he introduced legislation including "a fair housing act, a fair employment practices act, low-cost housing and disability insurance legislation, and workers’ compensation provisions for domestic workers."[2][5] Along with education, fair practices in employment and housing became Hawkins's major causes. He received little support at the time for these measures from the Democratic Party, however.[9] Nevertheless, he was able to get some measures passed, including his fair-housing law, which prohibited discrimination by any builders that received federal funds.[10] Hawkins was also a delegate to the National Conventions of 1940, 1944 and 1960, as well as an electoral college presidential elector from California in 1944. In 1958, Hawkins sought to be Speaker of the California State Assembly, which was the second-most powerful position in the state, after the Governor of California. Hawkins lost to Ralph M. Brown, but was made chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.[11][2] Had Hawkins succeeded, he would have become the first African-American Speaker in California history, a feat that Willie Brown would achieve in 1980. In 1962, Hawkins won a newly created majority-black congressional district encompassing central Los Angeles[12] With an endorsement from John F. Kennedy, Hawkins easily won the primary and the general election. After the election, Hawkins remarked, “It's like shifting gears—from the oldest man in the Assembly in years of service to a freshman in Congress.”[13]

U.S. Congress[edit]

Hawkins with President John F. Kennedy in 1962

From 1963 to 1991, Hawkins represented California's 21st District (1963–1975), and the 29th District (1975–1991), covering southern Los Angeles County, in Congress. Hawkins was consistently elected with over 80% of the vote in his Democratic-friendly district. He was the first black representative to be elected from west of the Mississippi River.[5]

Hawkins was a strong supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. Early in his congressional career, he authored legislation including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hawkins was a strong supporter of civil rights, and he toured the South in 1964 to advocate for African-American voter registration.[14]

Five days after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, the Watts Riots occurred in Hawkins's district. It was the first of many race riots in the 1960s. Hawkins urged his colleagues in Congress to increase antipoverty funds, but he did not condone the violence.[15] Due to his light skin and heightened racial tensions, Hawkins had to be careful when he visited his district shortly after the riots.[7] The riots stalled the Great Society, particularly over the fair housing; blacks who benefited from Great Society laws were blamed as being harmful to the "law and order" of America, particularly if they were allowed to live next to whites. Fair housing was still an unpopular issue in America: Democratic Senate nominee Pierre Salinger lost to Republican George Murphy in California over the issue, marking the only Republican pickup amid Lyndon Johnson's crushing presidential victory over anti-Civil Rights Act Barry Goldwater in 1964. Open housing reform seemed next on the Great Society list after the Voting Rights Act was signed, but the Watts Riot put it on hold. It was not passed until after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On the Vietnam War, Hawkins initially agreed with President Johnson. In 1964, both insisted that the war undermined the Great Society and that the United States could not "impose our way of life on other people."[16] When it became clear that South Vietnam was not stable enough to survive without American backing, Hawkins increased his criticism of the war. After touring South Vietnam June 1970, Hawkins and fellow Democratic Representative William Anderson drafted a House Resolution urging Congress to "condemn the cruel and inhumane treatment" of prisoners in South Vietnam.[5] Anderson and Hawkins had visited South Vietnam with nine other congressmen, but they were the only two to visit a civilian South Vietnamese prison on Con Son Island, which they described as being akin to “tiger cages.”[17] The two Representatives also pressured President Nixon to send an independent task force to investigate the prison and “prevent further degradation and death.”[18]

Portrait of Hawkins in the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Hawkins was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and served as vice chairman during its first term (1971–1973).[5][2] Hawkins did not play a significant role in the CBC, as he preferred to focus on legislation rather than use Congress as a bully pulpit like other African Americans such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Bill Clay, and Ron Dellums; Hawkins argued that there needed to be “clearer thinking and fewer exhibitionists in the civil rights movement.”[19] During this time, Hawkins succeeded in restoring honorable discharges to the 170 black soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment who had been falsely accused of a public disturbance in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, and removed from the Army.[20] Unlike other CBC members, he sought cooperation from organized labor and white ethnics in order to make his agenda more likely to pass into law.[21] In 1980, Hawkins criticized the CBC as "85 percent social and 15 percent business."[22]

Aside from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, laws that Hawkins was instrumental in passing include: the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, a law that provided certain protections to young criminal offenders; the 1978 Comprehensive Employment and Training Act; and the 1978 Pregnancy Disability Act, which aimed to prevent discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy and of which Hawkins said, “we have the opportunity to ensure that genuine equality in the American labor force is more than an illusion and that pregnancy will no longer be the basis of unfavorable treatment of working women."[23][24] Hawkins is known best of all for the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which Hawkins sponsored in 1977 alongside the legendary Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. The bill gave the U.S. government the goal of providing full employment; it also ordered that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board must provide Congress with testimony on the state of the economy. However, by the time that the bill made it to President Jimmy Carter's desk, "the legislation was clearly symbolic."[25][26][27] Hawkins later authored landmark legislation such as the Job Training Partnership Act and the 1988 School Improvement Act. He became chair of the House Education and Labor Committee in 1984.

Hawkins was frustrated from the relative lack of success that he achieved during the 1980s' presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. They were the most conservative presidents since the 1920s, and members of his own party were moving to the right and viewed Hawkins's old-school New Dealer stance as outdated.[5] His greatest setback was George H. W. Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, sometimes called the Hawkins-Kennedy Civil Rights Act. It would have reversed six Supreme Court decisions made in the previous year that had shifted the burden of proof of discriminating hiring practices of minorities or women from the employer to the employee. It remains the only successful veto of a civil rights act in United States history. Hawkins retired in January 1991. Bush would sign a less expansive bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, after Hawkins's retirement.[5]

Later life[edit]

Hawkins retired in 1991 to his Los Angeles home, never having lost an election in 58 years as an elected official. He lived in Washington, D.C., for the remainder of his life. Until his 2007 death at the age of 100, he was the oldest living person to have served in Congress. He was the eighth person to have served in Congress that reached the age of 100. Hawkins's death left the former Alabama Republican Representative Arthur Glenn Andrews (1909–2008) as the oldest living former House member.


The Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park was built in 2000 in a highly urbanized area of southern Los Angeles.[28][29] The cost was $4.5 million and was financed largely by city, county, and state bond measures.[28] The park encompasses 8.5 acres and features the Evan Frankel Discovery Center, which includes natural history and environmental interpretive displays.[30] The Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence Program is a federal grants program supporting diversification of the U.S. teaching force.[31]

Augustus F. Hawkins High School in Los Angeles, which opened in 2012, is named in his honor.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William L. Clay, Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991 (New York: Amistad Press, Inc, 1992): 94.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Claudia Luther and Valerie J. Nelson (November 13, 2007). "A pioneer for black lawmakers in L.A." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 17, 2021.
  3. ^ Sides, Josh (2003). L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 15.
  4. ^ Shirley Washington, Outstanding African Americans of Congress (Washington, DC: United States Capitol Historical Society, 1998): 39.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Office of the Clerk. "Augustus Freeman (Gus) Hawkins". Black Americans in Congress. United States House of Representatives. Archived from the original on August 4, 2010. Retrieved August 11, 2010.
  6. ^ Washington, Outstanding African Americans of Congress, 39–40; “Hawkins, Augustus,” Current Biography, 1983: 176–179.
  7. ^ a b May, Lee (September 28, 1989). "Mistaken Identities: And in America, Light-Skinned Blacks Are Acutely Aware That Race Still Matters to Many People". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 5, 2021. Retrieved August 12, 2010.
  8. ^ a b Sides, Josh (2003). L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 154.
  9. ^ a b Sides, Josh (2003). L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 33.
  10. ^ Sides, Josh (2003). L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 107.
  11. ^ “Still Seeks Assembly Post, Hawkins Says,” November 14, 1958, Los Angeles Times: 6
  12. ^ Gladwin Hill, “16 Men Battling in California for Eight New Seats in House,” October 20, 1962, New York Times: 10
  13. ^ “Negro, Congress-Bound, Loath to Leave State,” November 8, 1962, Los Angeles Times: 16.
  14. ^ Drew Pearson, “Negro Congressman Tours South,” August 5, 1964, Los Angeles Times: A6.
  15. ^ Peter Bart, “Officials Divided in Placing Blame,” August 15, 1965, New York Times: 81.
  16. ^ Augustus Hawkins, Oral History Interview: 18.
  17. ^ Gloria Emerson, “Americans Find Brutality in South Vietnamese Jail,” July 7, 1970, New York Times: 3; George C. Wilson, “S. Viet Prison Found 'Shocking',” July 7, 1970, Washington Post: A1.
  18. ^ Felix Belair, Jr., “House Panel Urges U.S. to Investigate 'Tiger Cage' Cells,” July 14, 1970, New York Times: 1.
  19. ^ “Augustus F. Hawkins,” Politics in America, 1989 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1988): 181.
  20. ^ John Dreyfuss, “Waiting Pays Off,” April 19, 1973, Los Angeles Times: A3.
  21. ^ Augustus Hawkins, Oral History Interview: 20; “Hawkins, Augustus,” Current Biography, 1983: 177.
  22. ^ Jacqueline Trescott, “Caucus Critiques,” September 27, 1980, Washington Post: D1.
  23. ^ Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., second sess. (18 July 1978): 21435.
  24. ^ Washington, Outstanding African Americans of Congress: 42–43.
  25. ^ Jacqueline Trescott, “The Long Haul of Rep. Gus Hawkins; At 83, the Steady Champion of Civil Rights Is Retiring From a Battle That Won't End,” October 24, 1990, Washington Post: D1
  26. ^ Edward Walsh, “Humphrey–Hawkins Measure Is Signed by the President,” October 28, 1978, Washington Post: A9
  27. ^ “President Signs Symbolic Humphrey–Hawkins Bill,” October 28, 1978, Los Angeles Times: 17.
  28. ^ a b Brown, Patricia Leigh (December 28, 2000). "A Park Offers Nature, Not Just Hoops (Published 2000)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 28, 2020.
  29. ^ "Proposition O Call for Projects, City of Los Angeles – Proposition O Citizens Oversight Advisory Committee, p. 3, 2005" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on July 26, 2011.
  30. ^ "Lamountains". Lamountains. Archived from the original on May 10, 2013.
  31. ^ "Augustus F. Hawkins Center of Excellence (Hawkins) Program". August 3, 2022. Retrieved March 14, 2023.

External links[edit]

California Assembly
Preceded by Member of the California Assembly
from the 62nd district

Succeeded by
Tom Waite
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 21st congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 29th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of House Administration Committee
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of House Education Committee
Succeeded by
Honorary titles
Preceded by Oldest living United States representative
(Sitting or former)

Succeeded by