Just what has happened to the effectiveness of "black leaders" will be a hot topic this summer at the conventions of nearly 100 black organizations meeting around the country.
It's hardly surprising. Even the most prominent black leaders -- not to mention once-powerful liberals Democrats -- have been powerless to stop the New Right's federal buget-cutting frenzy. Apparently there is no end in sight to the bad news for the poor.
So it would seem to be a good time to look at the question of black leadership in a new and different light.
That's just what happened several days ago in Chicago where Jessee Jackson's "People United to Save Humanity" -- better known as PUSH -- convened a leadership roundtable. The assemblage was symbolically significant because those who attended often are rumored to be at odds over directions black leadership should take and which organizations should be in the forefront. In fact, the panel was a success and pushed well beyond conventional thinking.
There was Vernon Jordan, of the National Urban League, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Jackson and Gary's Mayor Richard Hatcher. Two seats away sat Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Next to him was D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy, president of the Congressional Black Caucas. The panel also included such "cultural leaders" as singer Stevie Wonder and actress Ruby Dee. And filling out the group was Mona Bailey, president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, E. A. Freeman, of the Baptist Church, and Bill Lucy, representing labor.
From this collection of acknowledged leaders a consensus soon emerged: there is no single black leader today who can command the respect and attention of the entire black community.
Jordan's insights into the problem were particularly challenging. He told the panel that in recent years a half-dozen "new classes of black leaders" have emerged on the national scene. He identified them as men and women who have been elected to public office, who manage the resources of large public and private organizations, who have "pierced the corporate veil" and hold responsible positions in business or have started their own, and those in positions of community leadership.
So today, by his definition, the spectrum of black leadership is far broader, deeper, more experienced and more involved in a wider variety of issues than simple sterotyping from the past would suggest.
A few days earlier, Jesse Jackson wrestled with this question in a phone conversation with me before concluding that "there has to be a radical redistribution of responsibility" in the black community. It was necessary, he said, so that we could get away from the old image of a highly centralized black leadership.
All this is a new and healthy direction. It shows that the long-time traditional leaders know there won't be much progress until the leadership table is expanded to include many more people in order to build a sense of collective responsibility.
This is not to say that there is no longer any need for symbolic leaders who can serve as both spokesmans and negotiators for the black community. Nor is it to say that there are few matters on which most blacks agree. Look at the nearsolid front presented by blacks in the battle to keep the Voting Rights Act.
Yet, even such broad-based community efforts now are threatened. For no longer can black organizations, liberal whites, labor rank-and-file and the white churches. Today, the civil rights gains of the 60s are being threatened by nothing less than Congress and the Executive Branch, not to mention the Moral Majority and the New Right.
For those traditional "black leaders" who depend so heavily on government aid for their organizations' effectiveness, the situation is ominous. In Jordan's Urban League, to take just one example, 91 percent of the $35 million spent on special projects comes from the federal government.
All this argues for a powerful, more independent resource base to solve one of the most difficult problems leadership faces: money.
I'd like to see long-term endowment by the black community of these organizations. I've personally decided that the purchase and gift of a life-insurance policy for my favorite organization is a good way to support that organization's strength -- and independence.
For, if we must overcome the stereotype of a single black leader or even a half-dozen, it's time also to get past the stereotype that middle class blacks don't support their own organizations enough.
On the eve of the Urban League's conference here this week at the Sheraton Washington, Jordan commented that the league had survived 55 years without any federal money. It was a hint perhaps, that it would continue to survive even if government funds were snatched away. It is a worst case scenario, but there's a lesson here. Such bravado wouldn't be needed if every supporter offered some financial support. By doing so, the individual becomes a true leader, too.