Another Life

When Bill Cosby N-Bombed the Congressional Black Caucus

At a dinner marking the formation of the caucus in 1971, the now embattled comedian urged black members of Congress and other luminaries to ‘tighten up your game.’

Jessica Burstein/Corbis

“I love Cosby, and I just hope it’s not true.”

That’s what comedian Chris Rock told New York magazine about the rape and sexual assault allegations made against his hero, Bill Cosby.

Rock is one of many hoping the stories about the beloved comedy titan aren’t true. Routinely ranked as one of the greatest stand-up comics ever to work in the business, Cosby also was once widely respected in political circles. George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, and when the Congressional Black Caucus was established to represent African-American members of Congress, he was one of its most prominent celebrity allies.

On June 18, 1971, the caucus threw its inaugural dinner at the Dunbar Hotel. “Funds from the $100 per plate banquet will be used by the Caucus to finance a permanent, independent staff to conduct in-depth analysis of issues and policies relevant to Black and poor America,” an initial press release ++read++ []. The event also honored the election of African-American members of Congress, including Charles Rangel and Shirley Chisholm. Singers Nancy Wilson and Billy Eckstine attended, and actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered a well-received speech.

So did Cosby.

“I think that all you ni**ers need to…check yourselves out,” he said to laughter in his first big applause line of the evening. (Cosby wasn’t—and isn’t—the type to throw around the racial epithet onstage, so the crowd lost it when he did.)

“So I say, ‘Good evening, ni**ers,’ because that's what a lot of you gonna be when you leave this room,” he continued, to yet more laughs and applause from the gathering. “And I mean, there are white people sittin’ there, too. Ni**ers come in all colors…”

“I'm going to support the caucus as long as I live,” Cosby said. “I’ll support ’em because…the black establishment for too long has been the entertainers. And black entertainers very seldom get a chance to enjoy what the white entertainers have—that is, to be able to go out on the Riviera with sunglasses and float around on a raft. No, ’cause, you know, if you saw a picture of me out there on a raft with my sunglasses on you’d say, ‘Look at that ni**er and we up here strugglin’.’”

Foreshadowing his lectures to black America decades later on family values and appropriate behavior, Cosby went on to urge black citizens to get motivated and take responsibility,.

“Now there was dead silence in the room, as the well-heeled crowd finally understood what Cosby was saying,” Mark Whitaker wrote in his Cosby biography. “And in his mind, it was what he had been saying ever since: if black people wanted respect, they had to respect themselves first, and behave accordingly.”

“The entertainers still entertain—and the people still have to get an ass-kicking to go out and vote,” Cosby said.

"You gotta tighten up your ship. Tighten up your game…You don’t need speakers to tell you every day who you are, and where you have to go, and who’s cheating you. And you have to stop blaming people. Can’t blame the Jew who owns the store—‘We should go over there and take his store’—’cause there ain’t but seven of you in this place can run a store.”

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Things got even more serious when Cosby moved on to the subject of substance abuse and children. “It’s got to start with the young, too—our young,” he said. “Kids taking dope today. They were taking it yesterday. Only reason why everybody knows about it now is that white kids are involved in it heavily.”

Substance abuse was already an issue Cosby had grown particularly passionate about. In March 1971, he starred in the TV special Bill Cosby Talks With Children About Drugs.

The inaugural dinner wouldn’t be the last time Cosby spoke at a Congressional Black Caucus event. In January 1997, he headlined the caucus’s swearing-in ceremony for the 105th Congress and gave a speech at the Library of Congress on the importance of African-American political leadership.

Nowadays—given his long list of accusers, and many fans and TV executives turning their backs on him—it’s incredibly hard to imagine Cosby being asked back to deliver another such speech to a room filled with members of Congress.