Black Leadership Then and Now
WASHINGTON -- Perhaps it's inevitable that the passing of Coretta Scott King should be accompanied by fond exaggeration and a look backward that lingers a tad too long. Even as we mourn, some may wonder how we can express nostalgia toward a past that was awful in so many ways.
It could be that we find a peculiar comfort in revisiting the heroes and heroines of yesteryear -- people such as Rosa Parks, Mrs. King and the many other legendary figures who lent their energies to momentous battles -- because it helps us avoid noticing the lack of such figures today.
I don't believe anyone really desires or expects some golden individual to arise and lead African-Americans in a class-bridging, spirit-lifting ascent into racial nirvana. The "great man" (or woman) school of thought was thoroughly discredited by the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. is often portrayed as his era's solitary voice of black aspiration, but his public stances arose from intense, wide-ranging discussions with his circle of advisers. His lieutenants included James Bevel, Andrew Young and Hosea Williams -- not a "yes-man" among them. They were outspoken, headstrong and volatile personalities, each brilliant in his own way.
At the same time, the movement's most successful campaigns made use of a flow of information and strategy from the bottom up.
King's campaigns would never have gotten off the ground without the astute organizing of wise allies such as Amelia Boynton, a longtime activist in Selma, Ala., and Diane Nash, who emerged from the Nashville student movement to a role of national significance -- and King was smart enough to know it.
It was Nash and her husband James Bevel, not King, who initially conceived of the voting-rights campaign that transformed Selma and eventually wrought nationwide change.
In "Pillar of Fire," Taylor Branch describes the couple's reaction to the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. He wrote that they "raged in sorrow through Sunday afternoon" before deciding to "raise a nonviolent army across the entire state of Alabama to converge upon Montgomery and settle for nothing less than the enfranchisement of every adult Negro in Alabama."
By Tuesday afternoon, Branch writes, Nash "found a typewriter and wrote late into the night, setting down guidelines of military zeal and organization." By Tuesday evening, Nash had "pushed her way into King's room at the Gaston Motel" and presented her typed proposal. Although King was initially cool to the idea, in time Nash and Bevel's ideas formed the bedrock of a brilliant and dramatically effective strategy.
Nash and Bevel shut themselves in a room and conceived their blueprint in a matter of hours. Then they put their plans into the proper hands that could turn thought into action. Can those of us invested in contemporary African-American political issues imagine any such process today? Perhaps because we can't, we find ourselves gazing at those days of turmoil through sepia-tinted lenses.
Where, for instance, was the blueprint devised to combat the Federalist Society and other groups who have successfully pushed the judiciary to the right? When we first got wind of such efforts -- many of which are a bodacious affront to the gains of the civil rights movement -- did anyone shut themselves in a room and turn rage and sorrow into a bold and workable strategy?
During a conservative president's successful placement of two conservative judges on the Supreme Court, which African-Americans mounted effective opposition or ever spoke in a voice that compelled any of us to listen?
What were black leaders doing at the time? Cheating on their wives? Getting their hair done?
Occasionally I get letters from readers wondering why I devote so much thought to the idea of black leadership. Should there be such a thing, they ask, in this day and age?
As long as there remain issues of central importance to African-Americans, someone must be able to articulate them. Cancer and heart disease occur disproportionately in African-Americans. Black students continue to lag behind in academic achievement. Far too many black men engage in mindless destruction and wind up in prison. An alarming percentage of black women will never find someone to marry.
These are American problems in general and black problems in particular. As such, they cannot be solved without upright individuals who can persuasively argue that they deserve the nation's attention and energy.
A certain principled, deeply informed, fearlessness is called for. That, unfortunately, is exactly what is missing.