New York City

Charles Rangel reflects on his service, eyes the future of Harlem

Charles Rangel reflects on his historic run in the House of Representatives.

Charles Rangel

Charles Rangel Photo by Sean Pressley

Charles Rangel was a force in New York politics for decades. As New York’s longest-serving congressman, Rangel was the last of the Gang of Four, an African-American political coalition from Harlem, to retire from political office in 2016. And though he was primarily known as a figurehead of black political power in New York, Rangel was also outspoken on veterans issues. For his service in the Korean War, Rangel received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal for valor. City & State recently spoke to Rangel about how his service influenced his career, why he wanted to reinstate the draft and how he envisions the future of Harlem politics. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You have introduced bills several times to reinstate mandatory military service. Tell me why you think the draft is necessary.

We haven’t had a declared war in the United States since Franklin Roosevelt. Listening to presidents from Truman to Trump threatening to annihilate entire countries – and Congress not wanting to get involved in what clearly is not a threat to our national security – allows presidents, one after the other, to violate the Constitution and send out young people into harm’s way in the Middle East and Africa. It is just tragic. I go to the funerals, especially for those who died when I was a congressman, and to have to tell some of the families that the kids were heroes and died for the flag and for America – some of them are not even citizens and some of them are now being denied citizenship by this president – and to know that most of the members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, haven’t the slightest idea of the horror of war, just believing that we can send human beings for political reasons into foreign territories, all I said was we can have all the wars and interventions and building of new political authorities in countries, but let the American people through the Congress verify.

And that’s all I said. Everybody that’s eligible, men and women alike, should be registered to draft. And the question as to whether or not they need it then is a question for our military. And the question of whether we’re going to war would not be just a president making the decision, but one that’s verified by the people’s House of Representatives and the Senate. It just makes a hell of a lot of sense.

But presidents would like to ignore the legislative branch for a variety of reasons. And members don’t want it on their conscience that they made a mistake, but like to receive the benefits of what always looks like a short but winning event, and I can’t begin to tell you the number of members, Republican and Democrat, that supported me, encouraged me and did not have the courage to sign that bill. And once the bill was put on a consent calendar, which means it’s noncontroversial – limited debate, no hearings, no witnesses – of course members thought that it was such a serious bit of legislation that it should have a hearing. And they voted no, and used that as an excuse to say that the bill had no meaning.

"The patriotism of black veterans really exceeds most people in America. And I think that’s because we know this is the best country in the world."

You mentioned President Donald Trump’s threats. Do you think under his administration we’re coming closer to war?

I have no idea, and neither do you or anybody else. You find two people (Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) without any international diplomatic training, threatening to use (a) nation’s weapons to prove a point. I was born and raised on the streets of Lenox Avenue and I have not heard that type of rhetoric from competing gang leaders.

Charles Rangel
Photo by Sean Pressley
Looking back, what was behind your decision to serve in the military?

I hadn’t completed high school. I was without gainful employment and my oldest brother just completed four years in the Army, having enlisted before Pearl Harbor. And I recognized what a great economic contribution his check was making to my mom. Also in September of 1948, President Truman had indicated that he was starting a draft for two years in the regular Army. Many of my friends, in order to avoid the draft, selected to enlist for one year and then after that they would not be ready for active duty. They would have served their draft obligations, except they would have six years of active reserve.

How did you feel about the fact that the Army was de facto segregated at that point?

All my life, I’d known segregation. With the country being so racist, then when I was young and now when I’m 88, I’ve never met a white Southerner in Harlem, period, which shows you the fact that I know racism, even if not as direct as what was known in the South. It’s forced me to dedicate my life in the civil rights movement, having marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King and been involved in freedom fights since my discharge from the Army. The racism in the country, it was accepted in all of the wars since the Civil War. It was hard to know segregation, but it really hits when you served your country well and been honored for it, to go to a town like Lawton, Oklahoma, where I saw the depth of racism. I should not have been surprised because it still exists today, and the patriotism of black veterans really exceeds most people in America. And I think that’s because we know this is the best country in the world. We know racism exists and we know that the fight continues and we’re all involved in it.

“I was born and raised on the streets of Lenox Avenue and I have not heard (Trump and Kim’s) rhetoric from competing gang leaders.”

Pivoting to the coming elections, you endorsed Robert Jackson against Marisol Alcantara in the primary for the 31st state Senate District. Why is it important to you to defeat the former members of the Independent Democratic Conference?

I truly believe when someone enters elective office as a legislative representative, that they should have to identify themselves by party or independent, so that people who don’t know them have some idea of what they stand for. And as far as I know, the only Democrat in that race is Robert Jackson. Whoever got elected under the banner of being a Democrat is obviously hypocritical and hardly any of her supporters thought that she would be working with Republicans and not the party of her alleged choosing.

Do you think Jackson can actually win?

I don’t think there’s any question. I don’t know the polls, but I would have thought they would have him as a front-runner.

This district has become more Latino and less African-American over the past decade. What do you make of the changing demographics of that district, which overlaps with your former district quite a bit?

Every 10 years there have been changes in the makeup of the district. All African-Americans, and now African-African Americans and Latinos, Puerto Rican Americans and Mexicans, have made this what David Dinkins refers to as the gorgeous mosaic. And even though some people still vote by ethnicity, whether they’re white, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Hispanic or black, I think the overall concern of people has been what they think has been best for the community.

In a two-way race, does the Latino community has enough votes to overcome the African-American vote?

I think it’s clear on the other congressional districts similarly affected by the shift in populations that we are now talking about coalition politics. I don’t think it’s a question of one group over the other. That is a factor, but the coalition is a much more serious thing when someone says they are going to run in a district and you look at them and you look at the incumbent, you asked for more answers. And there’s no question in my mind that if the person (does) not have the same racial or religious persuasion (as) the incumbent, there are things that could overcome that. No question in my mind.

Many people are expecting a blue wave in New York this fall. What do you expect?

Last time I gave my expectation, Trump won the election, so I don’t trust my predictions any longer.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of David Dinkins, the former New York City mayor.