When Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, dean of the nation's black elected officials, was voted into the state Assembly 53 years ago this month, he became the only black member of the California Legislature.
"I remember driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento and seeing big signs on the way, 'No Negroes Admitted Here,' 'We Do Not Solicit the Negro Trade,' " recalls the South Los Angeles Democrat who now has longer continuous service in state-elected offices than any other Californian.
When Hawkins arrived in the state capital, he remembers, "I went to some functions that I did not realize blacks had not gone to. We were not expected to accept some invitations."
He has come a long way since then. A still-vigorous 80, Hawkins will be honored at a special $100-a-plate dinner at the Bonaventure on Wednesday celebrating his 25 years in Congress. Scores of political dignitaries, as well as about 1,500 of his supporters, are expected to attend the affair.
Far from announcing retirement plans that night, Hawkins--senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus--will probably talk about his 1988 reelection campaign.
Expressing a desire to serve under a Democratic president after next year's elections, he said in an interview last week:
"New challenges keep me quite busy. . . . I try to be very active. I play golf. I spend 30 minutes each morning walking briskly to work. I follow a very bland diet, avoid highly seasoned foods. I don't recall ever missing a day of work."
Hawkins is at the peak of his political power. Elected to Congress in 1962 when he became the first black elected to the House from a state west of the Mississippi, he has now amassed important seniority. Since 1984 he has been chairman of the House Education and Labor committee.
He was a political success, for that matter, even before going to Congress. During an era far less congenial to minority politicians, he spent 28 years in the state Assembly, becoming chairman of the influential Rules Committee, and in 1959, he missed becoming Speaker by two votes.
Although black lawmakers are shown considerable deference these days, Hawkins contends that, for the nation's black population in general, conditions have not changed as much many think.
"I feel the changes have been to a large extent somewhat artificial," he said in an interview last week. "In terms of employment and education, the gap (between the races) is still very wide. That worries me. While we have made progress and changes have occurred, there's too wide a gap still remaining. . . .
"I find some of the same problems, in a more subtle way, as I found 50 years ago."
'Not Racially Oriented'
That pessimistic assessment, coming from Hawkins, probably means more than if it came from most minority spokesmen in or out of government, for the congressman long ago won a Statehouse and U.S. Capitol reputation for being soft-spoken and circumspect and not particularly racial in his political approach.
The ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, Rep. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, said last week: "He is a black man, and he certainly represents the people of his district and blacks very effectively. But he never gives the opinion that's a factor to be considered. He never talks of it. He always thinks in general terms of people who need help. He is not racially oriented."
Much the same point was made by Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), who represents a district neighboring Hawkins'.
"I think Gus has prided himself on a technique of speaking for disadvantaged people but has never characterized them as being entirely black," Dixon said. "There are a lot of communities who have whites who have a need for public money. . . . He has never focused on race only. That brings him a great degree of credibility."
Congressional Quarterly's book, "Politics in America, The 100th Congress," begins its four-page essay on the congressman with this observation: "While other black political leaders have made fiery speeches and demonstrated for civil rights, gentle Gus Hawkins has plodded along, working through the legislative system for jobs, equal opportunity and education."
Hawkins himself once remarked, "Racializing an issue defeats my purpose--which is to get people on my side."
It's a view he has long held. Even during the 1960s, when a series of bloody riots erupted in his own district and other black communities around the country, Hawkins declared, "We need clearer thinking and fewer exhibitionists in the civil rights movement."
Another Republican colleague, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, says the congressman reflects such views in running the Education and Labor Committee. He described Hawkins as "an outstanding leader in a very quiet sort of way. Not a wheeler and dealer. He's not a shouter. He lets us know in committee that we'll do our fighting there and there'll be nothing said on the (House) floor."