One of the most discussed and often contentious debates in the black community is one of leadership. This is not to say to say that there aren’t any leaders; there are arguably more leaders (in quantity) now than ever before. From religion, politics, legal, education, business, entrepreneurs, entertainment, the arts, etc., many blacks have established themselves within their respective spheres and have achieved varying levels of success with regards to advocacy, activism, philanthropy and mentoring on the local, state, and federal level. What I am referring to is the concept of a monotheist/singularity concept to leadership that has existed and exists today versus leadership by plurality concepts. Blacks do not speak, think, learn, or interact monolithically so why the insistence on a monotheistic style brand of leadership? One can look to the influence of the early black church and the teachings of the Bible for some insight on the matter although the origins run a bit deeper. For many blacks while enslaved, there was a belief, almost messianic belief in the coming of a black leader to lead the people out of bondage (a la the Bible). The Bible has several stories that drew inspirational parallels to the slaves such as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Promised Land for example.
Concurrently, there is the pervasive and deeply entrenched belief that two or more opposing methodologies, principles, schools of thought, etc. cannot coexist in the same sphere. Singularity in leadership can be effective but as I will highlight in this article, it has been proven to be susceptible to insularity. Let’s face it; if exhibiting leadership at a high level was easy, everyone would be doing it. It comes with its own rigors, trials and burdens. Leadership by plurality affords those who employ it a chance to share the burden and to possibly share in a greater glory through coalition. That is not to say that this concept is without fault or that it is infallible in its application. I am positing that the successes gained from the singularity leadership concept would be enhanced if a leadership by plurality approach was utilized in its place. Alas, this strategy has not caught on with regards to overall leadership in the black community and had been routinely overlooked in favor of the singularity leadership/monotheistic-style model. Undoubtedly, this zero sum approach to leadership in the black community has vitiated some potentially great collaborations and thus hindered progress toward that ever elusive collective goal.
Booker T. Washington is regarded by many as the first great black leader coming out of Reconstruction; a crucial period in American history which left an imprint that is still visible today. His overarching doctrine called for building up economic and social structures within the segregated communities under the mantra of “property, thrift, industry, and intelligence”. He was cautious of overtly challenging the established Jim Crow laws that were being instituted (although he covertly helped to fund many judicial challenges to Jim Crow laws) and saw confrontation between blacks and whites as disastrous to the long-term mobility of blacks in America. In the Atlanta Exposition address of 1895 he appealed to many white southerners and white liberals by agreeing in principle that blacks would not ask for the right to vote, they would not retaliate against racist behavior, they would tolerate segregation and discrimination, that they would receive free basic education, education would be limited to vocational or industrial training (for instance as teachers or nurses), liberal arts education would be prohibited (for instance, college education in the classics, humanities, art, or literature. Contrary to Washington, W.E.B. DuBois (backed by the NAACP) insisted on full civil rights, increased political participation/power, full voting rights, opportunity to participate in liberal arts and abolishment of Jim Crow laws. DuBois and Marcus Garvey were at odds with one another over their vision for the black community. Garvey shared DuBois’ belief of Pan-Africanism but disavowed his aim of integration with white America in favor of separatism. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X squared off on several instances on most notably, the concept of non-violence and civil disobedience versus armed conflict and self-defense. Both of them underwent a metamorphosis of sorts with regard to their “brand” but became philosophically closer than most people think towards the latter portion of their leadership. Though none of these men fit the description of the messianic leader individually, their achievements are forever etched in the fabric of this nation. What if DuBois and Washington would have harnessed the energy spent sparring with one another and focused on the abolishment of Jim Crow orthodoxy? Garvey and DuBois would have joined forces to advance the interests of their compatriots in Liberia, Ghana, and the Diaspora? What if Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had agreed on a pseudo-militant strategy earlier in the 1960s? It is quite possible that the reform that Dr. King had planned regarding the poor would have been actualized. Purely speculator but it would only be possible with the cooperative environment fostered by plurality of leadership.
With the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Power movement and other groups scrambled to fill the void vacated by the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and the NAACP, who were struggling to consolidate power and redirect their focus. While the subsequent movements spawned some leaders of note (there are other but Stokely Carmichael of the SNCC, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party come to mind), nobody or persons reached the status to have a worthy adversary to engage their adversary/adversaries in the battle for public support and legitimacy of their agenda like Washington, DuBois, Garvey, King, and X did. I suppose that there is Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton. To say that their accomplishments and relevance pale in comparison to their predecessors is fair. Are there any leaders of note on the national level now that command the attention that harkens back to the heyday of black progressivism? One candidate for that mantle was Barack Obama. Surely, you remember the fervor surrounding his initial bid for the presidency in 2008? For many blacks, their belief, almost messianic belief in the coming of a black leader to lead the people out of bondage (a la the Bible) was finally coming to fruition. He was seen as the culmination of the struggles & achievements of many that preceded him. Although he has not served out the remainder of his term as President, it is clear to many that he is not going to fulfill those rather lofty expectations and pronouncements that were heaped on him at the onset of his presidency.
So, was his appointment by some as the successor of Martin Luther King Jr. a mistake? That depends on who you ask but it is clear that unlike some of his predecessors, President Obama did not seek out the specific crown of black leadership… He was an unwilling leader and perhaps, that has contributed to some of his shortcomings with regard to the black community (This may be explored in a future entry). Nevertheless, the search continues for the next leader to lead the black community. I can only hope that the populace and aspiring leaders can embrace and utilize the plurality of leadership concept. Can one achieve success by utilizing the monotheistic-style/singularity concept? Yes and this has been accomplished before. It also increases the instances of pyrrhic victories with regard to collective progression with each individual, singular leadership authored victory. In the framework of the bigger picture, I believe that the leadership by plurality methodology would produce better results.