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 insignificant."
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 Watergate scandal.
An 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.