DETROIT—Who speaks for black America today?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X captured the hearts and minds of millions in the 1960s—King while speaking of justice through passive resistance and Malcolm X with talk of taking it by any means necessary.
But the social and political landscapes have changed, and today’s leaders struggle to find a unifying message. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson step up when issues of race and social and economic injustice surface, but many African Americans are quick to say, “Those guys don’t speak for me.”
Friday, hundreds of leaders ages 30 to 50 from across the country gathered for the NAACP’s Leadership 500 Symposium in Detroit to try to craft a cohesive message a day before the group’s national convention was to open.
The discussions were taking place as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People searches for a new president, with some members wanting a leader to push a social-services agenda, some wanting a corporate- style manager to grow the group and some wanting an old style activist to fight injustice.
“I don’t believe we should look for one savior, one messiah,” said Roslyn M. Brock, vice chair of the NAACP’s national board. “However, we do need one resonating voice that can call us. In the `60s, it was the black church and the civil rights movement. Now, we have corporate leaders. We have politicians. We have educators and lawyers. We need to embrace the diaspora of the African-American voice.”
But those voices are saying different things. As racial gains have been made and more African Americans are making their marks in business, entertainment, sports, academia, politics and virtually every other walk of life, crafting an agenda that speaks to—and for—everyone has become more difficult.
“We’re very divided on a lot of issues,” said David Bomar, 38, a Detroit middle-school teacher and owner of Corner Boy, an independent film company. “We only react to a state of emergency. There’s a lot of division and a lot of apathy.”
African Americans held different philosophies even before the late 19th Century, when Booker T. Washington preached self-help, training in skilled trades and racial accommodation. Meanwhile, W.E.B. Dubois, who helped found the NAACP, called on intellectual muscle to advance the race.
But the civil rights movement that gave black people economic freedom and social gains created a more ideologically diverse population. African Americans are moving in greater numbers from cities to the suburbs, their concerns changing with geography.
Political allegiances are shifting, too. While most African Americans still vote Democratic, more have aligned with Republicans, the party typically less likely to approve of large government spending on social ills. In 2005, as many as 35 percent of younger black voters identified themselves as independent, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tracks black Americans.
The civil rights movement today can’t afford to have just one leader with one strategy, many say.
“I think it’s a trap if we allow mainstream America to define who and what our leadership should be,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP. “Barack is a type of leader. So is Sharpton. So is Jesse. So is” U.S. Rep. “John Conyers. ...“We need folks who can march in the street and folks who can proclaim the truth in suites. Weare diverse. Wehave different thoughts and feelings.”
Today’s leadership ranks take in everyone, from U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a presidential candidate with wide financial and philosophical support, to sports figures such as former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, an athlete known for his charitable work.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, keynote speaker at Friday’s symposium, said he doubts one leader can address all the issues important to African Americans.
“The civil rights movement has moved from being a movement of equality, or ending Jim Crow, to being one of economic equality and access to capital,” Kilpatrick said last week. “You’ve got to have leaders who understand how money drives America.”
That sometimes leaves other African Americans, those struggling with the social ills that heavily impact the wider community, feeling left behind.
“We believe that there needs to be more support” from the NAACP, said Darryl Woods, chairman of the NAACP prison program committee at the Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit, where he is serving a life sentence for murder.
The program is one of several the NAACP offers to address needs in the criminal justice system.
The NAACP has struggled with its own leadership issues. In March, after 19 months at the helm, Bruce S. Gordon, president and chief executive officer, stepped down because of disagreements with the 64-member board on the best way to run the organization. Gordon, 61, a former Verizon executive, wanted it to begin providing social services.
The national board recently appointed a search committee to find his replacement and said it hopes to have finalists identified by summer’s end. While board members say they would never snub any candidates from corporate America—they lauded Gordon’s business acumen—there now is interest in someone who has a proven track record in running a nonprofit.
A group called the NAACP Eastern Coalition of Concerned Members has expressed frustration with the national leadership. Comprised of about 100 lifetime members from Washington, D.C., to Greensboro, N.C., the group says the NAACP has been used by politicians and organized labor to further their agendas and forgotten its core mission.
“People don’t exactly know who we are, what we do and how we do it—we’re just not moving forward,” said Constance Parker, first vice president of the Pittsburgh NAACP. “When our national starts faltering, it weakens the chain.”
Andrew Taylor, 64, a member of the Washington, D.C., branch, said the national board is too unwieldy to make informed decisions. He said the organization may promote good ideas but rarely follows through.
“It’s one thing to talk about it and another to do something about it,” Taylor said. “How long do we continue to talk about it?”
Cliff Tucker, 49, agrees that the NAACP has lost its mission and become disconnected from everyday African Americans. He is not a member, but he said he believes that at one point in history, all black people felt as though they needed to be a part of the organization.
“They brought some of the greatest political minds and some of the greatest legal minds, and you could see them as a clear representative for the people,” said Tucker, who owns a construction company. “I don’t see that now. Seems like they’re ambulance chasing like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, so they can get some press.”
But Gary Flowers, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, said the problem isn’t with the leaders but with the people being led. The Forum, based in Washington, D.C., is a 30-year-old alliance of civil rights and civic organizations, including the NAACP.
“There is no crisis in black leadership. There is a crisis in civic involvement,” Flowers said. “If you’re not a member and you have not organized, you have relinquished your right to criticize.”
Many people know about U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat making waves as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.
Here are a few up-and-coming African Americans whose names aren’t so well known:
Omar Wascow, 36, cofounder of Blackplanet.com, a leading Web site for African Americans. After graduating from Stanford University, he coordinated a 22-city voter registration drive and was assistant director of a nonprofit job-training program that taught legal entrepreneurship to former drug dealers. He is pursuing a doctorate in black studies and political science at Harvard University.
Etan Thomas, 29, center for the Washington Wizards. The Syracuse University graduate is involved with the Democratic National Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Congressional Black Caucus and Rock the Vote. He has spoken at antiwar demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and speaks across the country. He also is a poet. He will be the keynote speaker at a youth luncheon Wednesday during the NAACP convention.
Jaclyn Cole, 23, founder of ROOTS, a Howard University student group formed to spark intergenerational debate and force students to ask themselves tough questions about race, gentrification, the war in Iraq and problems in Africa. Cole graduated from Howard and is pursuing a master’s degree at Yale University. She often participates in race forums.
Keith Boykin, 41, founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, a Washington-based civil rights organi.zation dedicated to fighting racism and homophobia. He is the author of three books, including the New York Times best seller “Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America.” He is cohost of the BET talk show “My Two Cents.”