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It's Time to Call for New Black Leadership

Kevin Powell, writer and activist, grew up in Jersey City and attended Rutgers University in the late 1980s. He later was made famous by MTV's The Real World, but Powell had become a student activist at Rutgers, working on voter registration and in the anti-apartheid movement. He has managed, while putting out a steady flow of books, to devote himself to political and social issues. He has organized black and Latino youth in New York City's welfare hotels and now heads up a Brooklyn group called Hip Hop Speaks.

"For me, coming of age in the 1980s," he says, "the two things that hit me were Jackson running for president and the emergence of Louis Farrakhan. If you did not grow up in a politically active household, you did not really have any relationship to black leadership, except maybe for the local preacher. I didn't know a black person could run for president—my integrated school didn't teach me about Shirley Chisholm. Fast-forward 20 years: In retrospect, neither Farrakhan nor Jackson had a concrete agenda for black people. What we got was a lot of gloss. . . . Jackson got 7 million votes, and it seemed that we could have gotten something for that, but what seemed to happen is that the decision moved from a collective choice to an individual choice.

illustration: Sam Weber

"The collective mind-set of the 1960s deteriorated into the selfishness of the '80s and '90s. All that excitement they created didn't come with any programs. Malcolm and Martin had some programmatic ideas, and a philosophical strength that wasn't manifested in the '80s. Jackson—his actions said it was really about him. With Farrakhan and all that rhetoric about creating black products and getting black men to D.C.—nothing happened. That's not a program. Then to now, leadership is also so woefully male-centered. And in terms of jobs, education, housing, we are worse off than in the civil rights era. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many young people look at these leaders and scoff. There's no agenda. It's an embarrassment."

Gloria Richardson Dandridge led a movement in Cambridge, Maryland, that started with protests in March 1963 and ended with the National Guard posted around the black Second Ward in some capacity for a year. She and 80 other protesters were arrested in the process, but they won a precedent-setting group of victories: new housing, school integration, jobs in health services, and more. One of the unique aspects of that movement is that they did not fight for just one change, but for the whole life of the community. She is currently a program officer in the New York City Department for the Aging.

Asked about Sharpton's run for president, Dandridge says, "He can't just go down South and think everybody is going to vote for him. People have their own local ties and interests that may come first." Dandridge says the distinction between civil rights leader and politician is important. "As a politician you're supposed to stay around and build on that, so you have to compromise or make exchanges. You can't jump from being a politician to being a civil rights leader. . . . Sharpton's campaigning now, and this kid has been shot in Brooklyn, and he's not here to respond.

"I think his group gives him money on Sundays. I don't think they have an analysis. He's an excellent speaker, and great on TV, but in terms of being a civil rights leader and always there, it's not working anymore.

"Most people think leaders crop up like Topsy and need special things—a mythmaking aura. Now, with moveon.org and some of the organizations coming up against globalization and racism and drawing different kinds of people, I don't think going celebrity is going to work. Celebrities don't have time or energy—or the know-how, as we saw with Russell Simmons going up to Albany on the Rockefeller drug laws. Their egos carry them so far, and I don't know what kind of reality testing there is with that. There have to be a lot of ordinary people from different places—leadership comes out of that. One of the key things is listening, not just that charismatic leadership where you just get up and talk and say you sympathize and that's it."

Most of the organizations begun during the civil rights era have had trouble holding on to their relevance and their funding in the past 40 years. The NAACP, which certainly gave the country its share of leaders, was nearly moribund in the 1970s, and then was rocked by scandal under then reverend Ben Chavis in the '90s. It has since rebounded, under the leadership of president Kweisi Mfume and board chair Julian Bond, into a $50 million organization, primarily through backing from Verizon, Bank of America, and Wachovia Bank. Is new leadership arising from this more corporate version of a civil rights group? Time will tell.

One of the most compelling reasons that the future may be long on leaders like Sharpton who can fly by the seat of their pants and who make financial deals that may be at variance with Democratic voters is that competing for elected office is increasingly difficult. According to a 2002 Wall Street Journal report, at least 87 of the 435 U.S. House members had no major-party challenger in 2000, and only about 30 races were competitive. Computer-driven gerrymandering used to take place only once a decade but now occurs much more frequently in many states. The 2000 House elections were the least competitive since 1988, and according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, the House elections near the end of this decade may be the least competitive in history.

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