Hundreds attended the dedication of Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond Saturday, which also featured a series of discussions on race and civil rights. (Daniel Berti/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Outside, U.S. congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis led an energetic crowd from the steps of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond for the dedication of the newly minted Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Inside the museum, a town hall featuring several members of the Congressional Black Caucus tackled issues affecting black Americans like criminal justice reform, the environment and health care.

The town hall, “The State of Black America,” was hosted by U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-4th, and attended by U.S. Reps. Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-3rd and Caucus Chair Karen Bass, a Democratic congresswoman from California. The event marked the 400th commemoration of the arrival of the first captive Africans in English North America, and the opening of a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture: “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality.”

U.S. Rep. Don McEachin speaks outside the Virginia Capitol. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The panelists drew attention to recent legislative efforts by the Congressional Black Caucus to address key issues impacting black communities across the country, including 2018’s anti-lynching bill and last week’s hearing on a reparations bill to confront the long-lasting repercussions of North American slavery and outlined top priorities moving forward.

“Four hundred years since our arrival on the continent, we are passing very significant legislation,” said Bass, who represents California’s 37th Congressional District.

Criminal justice reform, one of the top issues for the Congressional Black Caucus, was discussed at-length. Bass pointed to the The First Step Act, passed in December, that aims to reduce recidivism rates nationwide, but stopped short of calling it an unmitigated success.

“The criminal justice system is one of the most unjust systems in the country,” Bass said. “There’s still so much to be done.”

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif,. Official House photo.

Bass said she’s focused primarily on the rights of incarcerated women, and added language to the First Step Act to ban the “barbaric and inhuman” practice of shackling incarcerated, pregnant women to their beds during childbirth.

The panel, which was moderated by journalist Samantha Willis, a Mercury contributor, and Ravi Perry, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, also discussed the need to follow research and evidence-based practices in criminal justice policy, adequately fund prevention, early intervention and reentry programs and drug policy. 

“We need to absolutely legalize marijuana,” McEachin said. “As soon as we do that we need to let everybody out of jail that we imprisoned, and we need to go ahead and expunge their records.”

Environmental issues also topped the list of priorities for caucus members, who expressed concern that climate change will disproportionately affect low income and minority communities.

McEachin, co-founder of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force and vice-chair of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, said the environment is the most important issue of the 21st century for all Americans.

McEachin’s district which includes Charles City County, the future site of two natural gas-fired power plants, one of which is set to become the largest fossil-fired power plant in the state.

“Poor counties are often the places where bad things end up going,” McEachin said. “These gas compression companies have come in and set up shop, and you wonder why a few years from now you’re going to see a cancer cluster arise.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd. (Official Congressional photo)

Scott, whose 3rd Congressional District includes Hampton Roads, where sea-level rise has become a pressing issue due to global climate change. Scientists are predicting at least a one-foot increase in sea-level rise in that area by 2050, which would significantly disrupt the local economy and the livelihood of residents.

“We have areas in Norfolk and Hampton Roads that chronically flood,” Scott said. “We have to do something, and you can’t do it with a continuation of fossil fuels.”

The panelists also fielded questions from the moderators about maternal disparities between black and white women. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of pregnancy-related deaths for black women is three to four times higher than those of white women.

Bass said it was, “outrageous that in the wealthiest nation on the planet, moms die in childbirth.”

With the upcoming 2020 presidential and congressional elections looming on the horizon, much of the panel discussion returned to voter turnout.

“The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and 50 years later, we still have lots of work to do,” McEachin said.