Monday, April 4, was the 37th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And April 9 was the birthday of Paul Leroy Robeson. Both men are remembered not only for their prodigious talents but also for their tireless and uncompromising commitment to civil rights and social justice.
Despite the social pressures and racism arrayed against them, Dr. King and Paul Robeson did not deviate from our ancestral legacy of being providers, true protectors, and guiders of our race. Speaking up to right a wrong is “integrity in action.” Both men had the courage to practice “integrity in action” every day during their lifetime.
What happened to the Kings and Robesons, the race-conscious outspoken leaders of years gone by? They were young men when they became activists. Is there a shortage of young black leaders today?
My hypothesis is that there is no shortage of black leaders! There are black leaders in every field, in every waik of life. The only thing we are short of is the “perception” that allows us to see who the leaders in our community really are. Yes, there are the messiahs who speak on mountaintops. But more important are the countless individuals who show leadership in their everyday lives, on and off their jobs. Examples include young African-American entrepreneurs like Malcolm S. Crawford, owner of African Accents in Austin, and Forest Park Postmaster Dwayne Russell. These men are people who possess the will and the courage to make the most of opportunities to make a difference and in doing so, inspire leadership in others.
The image of black leadership that many of us hold is understandable. It grows out of our memories of the Civil Rights Era and the towering shadow cast by Dr. King and his contemporaries. But even then, the movement was populated by thousands of individuals–doctors, educators, day laborers and ordinary citizens–who found ways to make a contribution, often at great risk to themselves. A great many of these largely unknown leaders were businessmen and women. Some examples are Hennan J. Russell, the pioneering African-American contractor and developer, based in Atlanta, Ga. He quietly financed Dr. King’s civil rights crusade, putting up bonds for protesters who were jailed and provided the funds that kept King’s vision alive. And he was not alone. Black business leaders from A.G. Gaston to John H. Johnson put a share of their profits to work advancing the cause of social justice.
Today we need to cultivate and inspire leadership on a grand scale. We have hard work to do. Leaders are individuals who can induce others to cooperatively work toward certain goals that represent the values and motivations of both the leader and the followers (This definition excludes aldermen). Here are some recommendations for “new leadership” in Chicago urban centers.
New organizational leadership must arise and become the force behind a collective city-wide movement that will provide a unifying framework that allows all existing black organizations–like the Westside, Northside, and Southside NAACP–to come together to harness their potential, formulate a common direction and avoid working at cross-purposes.
A new type of Black Leadership Institute is needed to buttress the current “non-active” black individual and organizational leadership. Blacks must establish a “think” tank that focuses on formulating policy for solutions to the multitude of conditions crippling black Chicago. This institute should be an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research foundation. It should focus on those issues that are common to all blacks–the haves and have nots.
New black leadership must use technological advances to create a city-wide information network to communicate with constituents. Data developed by leadership could be accessible to decision-making blacks in the private and public sectors.
Finally, the new black leadership must be able to counter the new so-called color-blind or race-neutral racism, which does nothing more than maintain the status quo. The “new” racism hides the dominant society’s dislike of blacks by focusing the city and the country’s attention on non-issues. These issues divert black leadership into “merry-go-round” activities that diffuse and drain the black race’s limited resources. They also forcefully counter the ploys of white conservative think tanks and their Negro white boys, which develop and promote new code words for racism. Again, we have hard work to do.
The fact is that African Americans are no strangers to adversity. “Easy” is not in our vocabulary. We survived slavery, survived Jim Crow, survived the Civil Rights Era, and indeed survived the disillusionment of the many broken promises that followed. But our resiliency is not without limits. We are not invincible. The black communities have paid a price for what we, historically, have been made to endure because of the history of racism in this country. As a result, I fear we may be losing touch with our ability to confront and overcome the obstacles we continue to face.