Augustus Hawkins; Calif. Congressman

Augustus F. Hawkins sought to help the poor and disenfranchised.
Augustus F. Hawkins sought to help the poor and disenfranchised. (1977 Photo By James K.w. Atherton -- The Washington Post)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Augustus F. "Gus" Hawkins, 100, a California Democrat best known for advocating social welfare programs and anti-discrimination legislation during 14 terms in the House, died Nov. 10 at Suburban Hospital. He had pneumonia.

Rep. Hawkins had a long and distinguished career in the California State Assembly -- much of the time as its only black member -- before winning election to national office in a South Central Los Angeles district that included the riot-torn Watts neighborhood.

He served in the House from 1963 to 1991, and, in a style consistently described as subdued and pragmatic, he remained a standard-bearer of New Deal and Great Society programs aimed at helping the poor and disenfranchised.

Toward the end of his career, he held the chairmanships of the House Education and Labor Committee and the Committee on House Administration. He also was a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped start in 1971.

On Capitol Hill, he was associated with many anti-discrimination bills affecting minorities and women. Early in his career, he backed efforts to strengthen the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He also was a force behind the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The legislation required employers to cover pregnant workers in their disability and health insurance plans.

He worked to raise the minimum wage and foster job creation. His most prominent legislative initiative was an act he sponsored with Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) to reduce unemployment and inflation.

Rep. Hawkins said the measure, which passed in 1978, would bring full employment by 1980. But the federal jobs guarantee he hoped for was greatly watered down, including the elimination of the right to sue for a job. Furthermore, nothing in the legislation held the president or Congress liable for meeting its goals in employment or limiting inflation.

Augustus Freeman Hawkins was born Aug. 31, 1907, in Shreveport, La., where his father was a pharmacist. He was raised in Los Angeles and worked as a gymnasium janitor to pay his tuition at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He was active in campus politics and, after graduating in 1931, did further political science studies at the University of Southern California. Meanwhile, he campaigned in efforts to picket merchants who would not hire black people. He also spoke of an early political awakening stemming from his light skin, which confused streetcar drivers when he sat in the blacks-only section.

"I got so angry with the whole thing and embarrassed that I would just walk," he once said of the racism he faced on streetcars.

His community profile grew through a successful real estate agency he started with his brother, and in 1934 he successfully challenged a black incumbent, a Republican, for a State Assembly seat. According to the Los Angeles Times, Rep. Hawkins owed his victory to a promise to halve the Los Angeles streetcar fare to a nickel.

He earned a reputation as a soft-spoken but effective legislator during the next 28 years in Sacramento. He focused on measures affecting the poor, including slum clearance, workers compensation and disability insurance for farm laborers. He spent 14 years shepherding a fair employment act until its passage in 1959. That year, he narrowly lost a race for assembly speaker.

He spoke of ambitions to address Medicare and low-cost housing on a national level and won a seat in the House in 1962 with support from President John F. Kennedy. Rep. Hawkins was one of five black members in the House at the time and the first elected black member from California.

He allied himself with President Lyndon B. Johnson on legislation helping low-income families and received ample anti-poverty funding after the 1965 Watts riots devastated part of the district he represented. He also toured the South on fact-finding missions after three activists -- later found dead -- disappeared during a voter registration effort near Philadelphia, Miss. In the early 1970s, he defended busing as a way to desegregate school districts.

Rep. Hawkins did not seek reelection in 1990 and was succeeded by Maxine Waters (D). He remained in Washington and was director of a family foundation he started to give college scholarships to women in his district.

His first wife, Pegga Smith Hawkins, whom he married in 1945, died in 1966. His second wife, Elsie Jackson Taylor Hawkins, whom he married in 1977, died in June.

Survivors include three stepchildren, Brenda L. Stevenson of Chevy Chase, Barbara A. Hammond of Suitland and Michael A. Taylor of Reston; two granddaughters; and a great-granddaughter.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company