For the moment, Reverend Al Sharpton will probably be able to keep his job as self-appointed spokesman for African Americans in the race for Democratic presidential nominee. Although some say he will be hurt in the New York primary by recent Voice articles about his ties to Republican strategist Roger Stone, the most obstinate black voters will vote for him anyway because they still want to be heard. When Larry King asked a dumbfounded TV panel last week why Sharpton would stay in the race, they all overlooked the obvious: The most recent front-runner, John Kerry, has never had to slow down long enough to even acknowledge the devastation in communities of color wreaked by George W. Bush. Since the pundits only talk numbers and not about what candidates are saying, it will be hard to catch anyone asking the likely Democratic nominee about issues such as the loss of jobs, access to decent public education, a national epidemic of police brutality, the domestic threat presented by the USA Patriot Act, increased homelessness since welfare “reform,” and the disproportionately high number of black and Latino youth serving in the war in Iraq.
But should Kerry hang in there, the question will remain who he will deal with, having gotten this far without being forced to build support in black communities. Rather than Sharpton, the charismatic black member of Congress from Memphis, Harold Ford Jr., Kerry’s national co-chair, may be the one who determines how much time black voters’ issues will get. Regardless of the outcome over the next few months, the determination of what is on the Democratic Party agenda will be a game played strictly at the top of the food chain.
The problem of black leadership is not Sharpton, but a lack of other voices outside of the presidential contests who could exert enough influence on the Democratic Party to stem the rightward drift that has sacrificed our interests. Sharpton particularly took aim at the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council because the group authored the ape-the-Republicans strategy of recent years.
The dearth of national black leadership in an era of mushrooming media means that Sharpton had to run for president to become a nationally known black leader—and he could be doing so simply for that reason. (This is one case where losing can provide more than a year of steady publicity.) All other black household names these days are folks who turn up on Entertainment Tonight. Maybe that’s why rap mogul Russell Simmons sees his fame as a form of “electability” for national black leadership, and on the flip side, intellectual spokesmen such as Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson or former NAACP head Ben Chavis Muhammad have found hip-hop a likely arena for their ideas. Is this our leadership selection process?
If aspiring black (or white) leaders wish to tough it out by trying to get elected somewhere as a route to political change, they will find that redistricting across the country to secure existing Democratic and Republican congressional seats has made it extremely hard to even get in a race. Numbers show that the rate of increase in blacks being elected to office—federal to local—has slowed to the level of 1970.
Sharpton has had his wish and followed the lead of Jesse Jackson into presidential politics, but it’s pretty clear that black voters are getting less and less out of this form of political exercise. “Sharpton has gotten an incredibly small share of the black vote compared to Jesse Jackson,” says David A. Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES). In 1988, “Jackson basically got all of the black vote and some of the white vote.”
For a running-to-lose strategy to result in leverage, he says, “it has to be a credible candidate. They have to bring something to the table. When Jesse ran in 1984 and ’88, he brought a lot to the table—he was well liked, he was a very good organizer, and encouraged grassroots organizing all over the country. There was a very substantial increase in the black vote, in large part due to his efforts and the inspiration his candidacy brought. Sharpton didn’t have the greatest reputation to begin with and didn’t engage in any organization-building. He hasn’t done anything to increase black turnout.” Well, Sharpton’s GOP credit card would explain his failure to make any organizational effort to register African American Democrats.
Indeed, in numbers, Sharpton has brought no more black folks to the polls than the negatively inspiring George W. Bush. While black turnout during the primaries has been good, or “decent,” according to Bositis, compared with generally low turnout over the past few years, it doesn’t match the numbers when Jackson last ran in 1988. In 2004, the black share of the vote in the Virginia primary was 33 percent, 47 percent in South Carolina, and 23 percent in Tennessee, all significant numbers. According to Bositis, more blacks came out to vote during Jackson’s second run—in Tennessee for instance, 576,000 voted in ’88, as opposed to 360,000 this year.
It’s time to throw out some of these cult-of-celebrity tactics and go back to organizing around the real needs in our communities. If this is a really difficult time to raise funds through weekly meetings, as Sharpton’s financial woes at the National Action Network prove, then perhaps the next leaders will take a page from Howard Dean and get 600,000 e-mail contacts for the disgruntled and underserved black body politic.
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.
“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.
In 2002, only four House incumbents lost to challengers—the fewest ever, and more than 80 percent of seats were won by landslide margins. Three out of every four who had relatively close races in 2000 ran in 2002 in districts redrawn favorably for their party. According to a study from the JCPES, which covers federal, state, municipal, and local officials, the number of black male elected politicians declined between 1998 and 2001. The only gains were made by black women.
It must also be said that black leadership has been systematically assailed over the years. While we are sometimes reminded of the attacks on leaders across the country in the 1960s, official investigations have been a way of life for blacks in public office ever since. People of color appointed by President Bill Clinton were hounded out of office or prevented from assuming jobs as cabinet members and federal judges. And let us not forget the retribution doled out to former Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney for questioning U.S. intelligence on the 9-11 attacks. Republicans in Atlanta crossed party lines to vote against her in the Democratic primary.
For the moment, though, Julian Bond, for one, is upbeat on the subject of black leadership, pointing to the role played in recent days by pols like South Carolina representative James Clyburn. “And there are other leadership types,” he says, “making noise and raising Cain all over the U.S.A.” However, he adds, “there is the interesting side debate about the ‘hip-hop’ versus the ‘sit-in generation,’ although I have to say as a presumed member of the latter, I have never heard anyone in my age cohort define us that way. In fact, I find it a curiously one-sided debate—with the hip-hoppers arguing against their elders but not offering any rationale for why they ought to be taken seriously as ‘leaders’ or ‘innovators’ or as serious challengers to African Americans’ status in life.”
Maybe the divide is not so great. Youth are skeptical of authority, but that doesn’t mean they can’t separate the real from the rest. As Kevin Powell puts it, “To be a black leader, you’ve got to have a level of integrity and selflessness. You cannot participate in the commodification of black leadership. You can’t treat young voters as if they’re people buying CDs.” While there are those trying to organize youth from large stages with rap stars, others like Powell are at work on the ground. “It’s very difficult,” he says of putting on public forums. “We were getting 500 to 2,000 people out, but we had a hard time getting money to pay for the events. But with the hip-hop generation, it’s all about the hustle—we don’t let that stop us.”
It has been a boon to those watching the debates that Sharpton was there chiding the party to honor its roots, along with Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun, but Sharpton and Moseley Braun proved that black voters are not waiting for a black candidate to do as Jesse did—win 7 million votes, register 2 million, and not get any understanding from the nominee.
The keen interest African American voters—particularly progressives—had in the Dean campaign serves notice that we also are looking for fresh ideas. Dean may be too temperamental to have his finger on any missiles, but he is not a retread of anybody else. Today’s black leaders have been living in the shadows of the fallen—visionaries who can’t be duplicated. A candidacy propped up—like Sharpton’s—by help from folks who prefer to see the Democrats mired in their own contradictions is not a new idea. Black leaders are failing us for the same reason white leaders are failing us: They are not dealing with the problems on the ground. For the past 30 years too many have modeled their ideas of leadership on mythical icons.
Sharpton wanted to be the next Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Jackson wanted to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. Jesse Jackson Jr. probably also wants to be the next Jesse. Carol Moseley Braun was pegged the next Shirley Chisholm, whose chief significance as a black candidate is that she was the first. There are quite a few neo-Malcolms like Cornel West among the over-40 set, and Henry Louis Gates is out to be the new W.E.B. DuBois, but a televised one. Louis Farrakhan wanted to be the new Elijah Muhammad, and Chavis Muhammad looks to be grooming himself to be a new, kinder, gentler Farrakhan with sartorial touches from his hip-hop mogul boss, Russell Simmons.
At the margins we have the “new” Black Panthers and an array of Muslim sects ranging from progressive to regressive. Most of the remaining prominent black (and yes, male) voices out there “representing,” such as Kweisi Mfume and Randall Robinson, give you a Malcolm-Martin stylistic mix. (No neo-Baldwins or -Rustins in this crew.)
We are way overdue for a change in black leadership—a few 21st-century originals or, better yet, many of them. We need young people with ideas who aren’t just out to dine at Gallagher’s with Roger Stone or make headlines by stripping in public. Does one have to say that the answer won’t come from the cold warrior Condoleezza Rice or General Colin Powell, now tainted as an apologist for missing weapons of mass destruction?
When Julian Bond was 20 years old, he was one of hundreds of students who founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960. Asked today if a movement led by a single figure is most effective, Bond says, “They probably are more effective with one leader. Most people—whites, especially—like for there to be one leader. But I spent all my early years in SNCC arguing there shouldn’t be one—that having one was dangerous, that many voices should be heard.”
Kevin Powell, born in the 1960s, seems to agree: “It’s got to be collective leadership. It’s got to be holistic and be able to speak in these times. People born between 1965 and 1980, the hip-hop generation, we’re the first generation to go to integrated schools—we grew up with crack and AIDS. Leadership has to be able to connect the dots. The day of the single leader is over. We’ve elevated Martin and Malcolm like they were the only people doing work. And that’s not true.”
Gloria Dandridge, who came of age in the 1940s, adds, “People think that leaders have to be known, or to already be made in a way. Young people need to go into urban areas and organize. Stay there and live in the area, foster that and make it grow.”
What will Sharpton do when he returns here to the fold? That’s hard to say. The other day I heard Councilman Charles Barron referred to on the radio as “the new Al Sharpton.”