“Who Are Our Civil Rights Leaders?”


I grew up in an era when anytime a Black person’s rights were violated we knew who would stand up and speak against the injustice. We knew we would hear from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Mrs. Dorothy Height, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, or any number of artists (e.g. Harry Belafonte) or states people (Adam Clayton Powell). But today, I am not sure who truly represents our civil rights. I know if some of the traditional folks–Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jessie Jackson, or Julian Bond–attempt to speak up some Whites consider them “race pimps” and Black young folks consider them irrelevant. Who then has the authority to speak for Black folks? Where are our civil rights leaders?

Perhaps because of the widespread use of electronic technologies (cell phone cameras, computers) and social media we now believe everyone can speak for themselves and everyone is a journalist, pundit, or spokesperson. Perhaps because our airways are saturated with “reality shows” we don’t find mundane issues like civil rights all that interesting. Or maybe because some of us have financial security, impressive careers, and the distance of class, we don’t seem as invested in civil rights as generations in the 50s and 60s.

Today’s “civil rights leader” is as likely to be an Ivy League university professor or a television commentator as a full time activist. To be sure there are some people who continue to lead the charge against injustice. For instance, Rev. William Barber of North Carolina regularly leads Moral Mondays–acts of civil disobedience at the state capitol building. But, he does not yet have the name recognition of activist of the past.

Civil rights is not nearly as “sexy” today as it once was and I think I know why. At the height of the civil rights movement the leaders of the time galvanized our youth. I know because I was one of those kids attending rallies, protests, and marches. I was reading everything I could about our struggle–papers, books, poetry–and our music reflected where we were. We listened to Curtis Mayfield (“Keep on pushing”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”),  Sam Cooke (“A Change is Gonna Come”) and James Brown (“Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”). The youth were the foot soldiers of the movement.

Today, despite being pushed to the margins of social movements, our youth are engaged in some of the most exciting cultural production the world has ever seen. Everything about hip hop culture says protest, revolution, and counter culture. Here I am not talking about the wildly commercial forms that emphasize misogyny, homophobia, racism, and the glorification of drugs and money. No, I am talking about the cutting edge music of Jasiri X, Immortal Technique, Intikana, and Kendrick Lamar that draws on the traditions of KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Talib Kweli. The music of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah pushed the role and power of women to the forefront of the industry. However, in today’s civil rights discourse, our youth are not a part of the movement.

Perhaps we cannot decide on civil rights leaders because the real leaders are not in front of us…they are (in the generation) behind us! What do you think?

Stay Black & Smart!

3 thoughts on ““Who Are Our Civil Rights Leaders?”

  1. I find it coincidental that this blog is on Facebook today, a day on which I found myself pondering on the very same issue while in Meeting for Worship at the Madison Friend’s Meeting. I did not arrive at a place that could be considered an answer. More questions arose. And now, this blog adds to the wondering that’s wandering in my mind.

    People, in general, respond to highly public figures, casting them as their leaders, in whatever area these people are in be it entertainment, politics or, in this case, civil rights, human rights and the struggle for social and economic justice.

    For many, me included, I was blessed with the gift of having intellectual parents and a father, an Episcopal priest, who was actively involved in the civil rights movement. But my, our gift was one that so many uneducated, low-income, rural/country folk were not recipients. They were left out and many didn’t even want to participate. So, the civil rights leaders were selected by others who declared these people our leaders. That is not happening today and nor is anyone stepping forward or being pushed forward into civil rights service such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was by the Montgomery NAACP, Montgomery black churches and Bayard Rustin, a leader that remains to be shunned. I will be so bold to say that if Bayard did not appear on King’s front porch one evening at the behest of others who knew the boycott was not being so successful and suggested that Bayard go to Montgomery to help them organize the campaign, King may have floated off into oblivion.

    Leaders have arisen in starts and spurts over history. Today we honor Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglas and others for advancing the liberty of those enslaved peoples in the south. When they died, there was a lull in the leadership seat. Later, Marcus Garvey, Charles Hamilton, W.E.B. DuBois among others stepped up, slapped on the leadership hat and marched on. The “Back to Africa Movement” sprung alive, the NAACP was born as was the National Urban League (not the name at that time but that’s what it’s known by today). Educators such as DuBois, Hamilton and Booker T. Washington, to name only a few, took bold positions on educating African Americans thus the many historical Black Colleges and Universities that continue to exist today.

    And, yes, we found leaders in the arts, especially during the Harlem Renaissance. Novels, poetry, music (jazz becoming the popular music of the day) inched along the movement. Radio was the popular media source (as many black Americans did not know how to read a newspaper) thus the movements trudged along at a slow pace. It wasn’t until the advent of television that increasingly more people became familiar with the politics of our nation, the civil rights movement greatly benefited by the use of television, e.g. the viciousness of Sheriff Bull Connor on Birmingham, AL who regularly ordered fire hoses and eager and dangerous German Shepherds to engage black protestors seeking their voting rights and the right to enjoy the freedom to have attend any school or eat at any lunch counter they so chose, be they adults or children. It was only when President L. Johnson witnessed this on television did he become all the more determined to pass a voting rights act and civil rights act.

    Television created leaders and cut down anyone it wanted with all the power it possessed. It even determined the outcome of the presidential election of Senator John F. Kennedy over Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. In that manner, television also selected, informed the viewing public who the black leaders were, who was to be trusted, who were the trouble makers and should be avoided and who should be placed on the pedestal of mighty leadership.

    A community organizer out of Chicago, who succeeded to be elected in the Illinois legislature, was suddenly shoved onto the international stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention because it was heard by the Democratic National Committee that Barack Obama was a charismatic speaker and happened to find himself in a good luck position in his race for the U.S. Senate following scandals that eliminated any major Republican opposition of worth in Illinois. Thus, onto the international stage he went on the first night of the convention. The media, conservative and liberal alike, were totally astounded by this newcomer whose speech was so refreshing and powerful, so bright in hope that it blinded everyone looking straight at the light that spun away from Obama. He became the new leader in black America overnight. The power of the media made it so.

    Now that our president is caught in the web of foreign affairs and the hate of so many white Americans, we must search for new leaders. Yes, it was amazing to find Rev. Al Sharpton hosting “Politics Nation” on MSNBC (a very controversial decision made by NBC) while remaining to pursue his civil and human rights activism. But, how many people really know this and really care? The leadership mantle has yet to be truly deserved and presented to Sharpton.

    We are at another lull. And given how the media operate today with the plethora of loud and aggressive media tools struggling to insert their messages in our young people’s minds the type of leadership is likely not to be similar to that of our past leaders.

    We should not be complacent just because the struggle to the top is far more challenging today that ever. Rather, it is incumbent upon all of those who can and are willing to mentor, teach and forge new leadership wherever it may emerge. For those of us “elders” now is our time to step aside and allow for a new type of leadership to arise. What worked for us in the past will not only fail today but is being actively tossed aside by a new generation of youth who view the world very differently than we do and have.

    We must swing open the doors, encourage the potential that emerges from our classrooms, communities, neighborhood centers, faith communities (Christian, Islamic and other faiths) to take the steps they see fit, to take the risks they believe are necessary, and we must stand ready to guide, mentor and teach. Tomorrow’s leaders don’t look, act or even believe in the same traditional doctrines with which we grew up. Today is a new day and new leaders will emerge. Don’t force it, allow for that leadership to blossom as it will in its own time, in its own way.


    • Steve:
      Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and detailed reply. These are the kinds of conversations I’d hope to stimulate via this blog. Am really tired of always be in reactive mode. Instead of always answering questions I’d like for us to pose our own questions.


      • I really appreciate this blog, as well as Stephen Braunginn’s response. I’ve actually been thinking about this question since it was posed. Who are our civil rights leaders? I’d like to suggest a few people who I think are reminding people not to drop the civil rights struggle—and who I view as leaders—though I’m not sure others would regard them as such: Keith Ellison, the outspoken politician from Minneapolis. He’s a very thoughtful Black man and father who is also Muslim and liberal, and these intersecting identities inform his world view; Charles M. Blow –the Black NY Times columnist who makes us think about race, class, and gender, and even squirm a little; and perhaps we ought to look in our own back yards for some local people who are advancing the struggle in effective but non-self-aggrandizing ways: our very own GLB. Gloria, you’re reaching people, through your educational advocacy, affecting policy, and inspiring the next generation, through your entré into the hip-hop world.Not all leaders have to be blustery and on TV all the time. So yes, I am nodding my head in agreement with everything that Mr. Braunginn said–and suggesting that perhaps, I’ve provided 3 different examples of how moral leadership can manifest itself right here, right now.


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