Before writing this blog, I wanted to do a little research in regards to the question of leadership in the Black community just to get a feel of public opinion on this matter. I posted a video clip on social media of Dr. Julia Hare speaking at the National Urban League’s State of Black America annual event, which originally aired on C-SPAN. Dr. Hare is the national executive director of the Black Think Tank. In the clip, the audience cheered as she made the case that there is a difference between black leaders and leading blacks. “Don’t ever confuse leading blacks with black leaders,” she said. “Black leaders are chosen by you, the people; whereas leading blacks are chosen by the media,” she explained.
I dug a little deeper and conducted a Google search with the query: “Is there a lack of black leadership in America today?” After reading numerous articles, some blogs and some news commentary, I observed a great diversity of thought on this topic. Some say there is a lack of leadership in the Black community while some say there is not; however, others say there is no need for Black leadership ever since the passing of the civil rights act of 1964 which entitled Blacks to fair and equal treatment under the law in the obtainment of employment, housing, and voting. The latter group also argues that it is now up to the individual to fight injustice inflicted upon him in each institution. Something about that statement struck me as unrealistic. I asked myself, is that really the case? Can an individual fight systemic racism and institutionalized racism alone?
Faith Leaders Seize the Opportunity to Lead the Black Community
When we take a look back at those who came before us, we can see how the Black community banded together to fight systemic racism and white supremacy at the grassroots level. For example, in 1965, there were no Black U. S. senators or governors, and only five members of the House of Representatives were Black. With that being the case, it is no wonder that faith leaders seized the opportunity to organize their congregations for political action, which is a bold action against the separation of church and state.
Beginning in the 1930’s, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) was a church pastor who successfully mobilized the Black church in Harlem, New York to participate in local boycotts and protests; he later became the first Black politician from New York State elected to Congress. Thanks to his large congregation and lasting influence, Powell was re-elected for nearly three decades (1947-71) and passed more legislation than any other congressmen, White or Black, thereby impacting change on civil rights and desegregation. Thanks to Powell, lynching became a federal crime and public schools were desegregated. He attached an anti-discrimination clause to every piece of legislation that came across his desk. It had become known as the Powell Amendment and he became known as “Mr. Civil Rights.” A little over a decade later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed in his footsteps and organized the Black church in the south to march, protest, and boycott businesses for equal rights. Around the same time, Imam Malcolm X aka El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz had also organized members of the Nation of Islam to fight against social injustices inflicted upon the Black community.
The Next Generation of Leaders
Although Powell, X, and King, were members of The Greatest Generation, born between 1900 and 1928 (King just making the cut off, born in 1929); the challenge of changing public opinion on matters of race and social injustice was arduous. Many of their contemporaries were survivors of the Great Depression and took pride in fighting for this country in World War II. They are known for helping to build this country. They may have had aspirations or encouraged their children to join the establishment in order to impact change as opposed to fighting against it. They have witnessed too many murders and lynchings at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (which was backed by the law enforcement) of innocent Blacks who were exhibited as examples of what will happen to Blacks who rebel against Jim Crow Laws. With that being the case, fighting against the government or disrupting social norms, were not a top priority at that time. However, they are the parents of the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) as there was a great surge in births when the soldiers returned home from the war. Baby Boomers are noted in history for banning together, along with the Silent Generation (1928-1945) to fight against the establishment in the 1960’s, a period in American history that continues to be studied by historians and scholars to this day.
Nearly all of those Black leaders became targets of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), which started in 1908. They were investigated, infiltrated, incarcerated, and some were assassinated. Ultimately, many of their organizations were disintegrated. They were made an example of for those watching, like a public lynching of sorts. Many today believe this to have signaled the end of the single leader model previously used in the Black community. But, in this day and age of social media, Black people have discovered new ways to organize and share powerful messages and ideas around social injustice. Thanks to modern technology, one person is not needed to rally the masses. Numerous voices have cried out on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok on pressing social issues that have now become mainstream; the most notable being the issue of police brutality inflicted upon innocent Blacks, which is akin to the lynchings of the 20th century and horrorfiyingly mirrors history’s most heinous acts of genocide.
21st Century Leaders of the Black Community
Although the fabric of America has not changed dramatically since the passing of many of the aforementioned Black leaders, social media and advancing technology has created a state of hyper-awareness, which has in turn caused public opinion to shift considerably. On May 25, 2020, Darnella Frazier, a 17 year old teenerager, decided to use her cell phone to record an incident of police brutality as she witnessed it. As she pleaded for the police officer, Derek Chauvin, to take his knee off of the suspects neck, to no avail, she ended up recording the murder of Mr. George Floyd. A public lynching. In the perfect storm leading up to the protests of 2020, it was remarkable to see how a new generation of agitators, disruptors, and abolitionists rose to the occasion willing to risk their lives for the Black community. In the midst of a global pandemic, they were in the streets marching, some as young as 5 years old, wearing face masks and shields; they lead protests and chants. It was a moment that forged character. It was a time for bold action; and they took it. That’s true leadership. One thing we know is that leaders act; they get involved. In the same way that Malcolm, Martin, and Adam acted, so did this new generation of activists. They didn’t sit on the sidelines and complain. They organized….effectively! It is also important to note that they didn’t feed into the notion of one leader, but they believed in the act of organizing itself. In the true definition of leadership, they were able to influence others to act as well. Their influence went global as people all over the world joined them in marching for justice for Black people. May they continue to show leadership by studying their progenitors, many of whom are still alive today!
One notable Baby Boomer who has lead us into the 21st century fighting against racial and social injustice is the Revered Alfred Charles Sharpton, Jr. (1954- ). At an early age, Al Sharpton became an ordained minister and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was started by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a member of the SCLC in the late 1960’s, he began fighting for diversity in the workplace by applying social and economic pressure on businesses. After graduating from high school in 1972, Sharpton started his own organization called the National Youth Movement, which helps younger generations to organize and fight for Black Americans. Today, one of his protégé’s is Tamika D. Mallory (1980- ), a young activist who has been instrumental in leading protests in the 2020 murder of Mr. George Floyd, amongst other causes for women and Black people.
Today, there are still no Black governors, and only 57 House members in Congress are Black, bringing the number up to 13 percent, which is closer to the representation of the population of Black America. Whether they are Black leaders or leading Blacks, one thing is certain, joining forces, uniting, and working together for the greater good of the Black community can have a greater impact on changing social injustice in America than one individual working alone.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
Here is a link to the original article.