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In 1973, journalist Tony Brown hosted a “Black Journal” television special featuring the time’s most prominent Black leaders. Audiences were tuned into a roundtable that included thought leaders such as Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael; Fannie Lou Hamer, and Angela Davis. Other voices included politicians such as Congressman Louis Stokes, then of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton while organizations such as the National Business League, National Urban League and NAACP were represented by Berkeley G. Burrell and James D. Williams, respectively.
The programming wasn’t an uncommon sight with “Black Journal” becoming a routine platform for the African-American community to become acquainted with its leaders via public broadcasting. With these leaders came definitive voices distinctive from one another, but uniform in their grander objectives. Such a characteristic was a common feature of the Black Power Movement that fueled the ‘70s along with the Civil Rights Movement that preceded it. It’s a characteristic that challenges our current landscape.
Historically, these times of civil unrest issued new eras of legislation or a general shift in the norm for Black people in America due to distinct community leaders who memorably led the charges for such change. Often, these leaders became synonymous with the movement and their particular objective with schools of thoughts, strategies of disobedience, and even the world’s most memorable speeches attached to their legacies. Altogether, such memories leave behind a major question in times like the ones we are currently experiencing: Where are the distinct Black leaders charged with elevating and advancing Black causes?
According to Dr. Vincent Adejumo, this crisis can be attributed to a combination of three things: a lack of direct challenge, a surplus of more reserved comments and statements, and an absence of accountability among elected Black officials.
“Their statements usually are in the form of a social media post or letter to a publication pleading for Black people to not riot, urging them to vote blue, and advocating a methodical process through the political system,” writes Adejumo, a professor of African American studies for the University of Florida, for Fast Company.
In this same argument, Adejumo presents the contrast that has quite obviously diluted the objectives of our elected officials. When advocating for the general public, the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer did not speak as representatives of any political party. In fact, their primary goals were to challenge those who hold the positions that many of our Black leaders hold today. Therefore, the need to appease political allies and tread diplomatically never superseded the objective at hand. Black leaders of the ‘60s and ‘70s often emerged as grassroots activists whose importance correlated with Black public opinion. In a sense, they were unofficially elected by Black people as representatives. But, the lack of any true public political ties found itself at the core of the integrity of movements that have led to legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
When drawing contrast between 2020 and 1964, we can check off social media has a clear distinction. It’s served as the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been the medium of dissemination for the documented deaths and abuse of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, and while the world’s population distanced from one another, it united Black voices and our allies more than ever before by allowing George Floyd’s death to catalyze the biggest push for Black rights and civil liberties in America since the 60s and 70s.
In a way, we have found ourselves in the same fertile landscape, ripe for change, but our leaders have disappeared. Social media, in all its glory, has also contributed to this gaping absence. Over the past few decades, we have inadvertently placed the work of civil rights leaders on Black celebrity. Artists, athletes, and actors whose roles have been to represent their communities in their respective fields have been forced to verse themselves on topics such as racial injustice and diversity among their peers. This isn’t to say that Black leadership should be limited to scholarship and activism.
From Tommie Smith to Cardi B, there is ample indication of just how Black celebrities and non-political leaders have used their platform to extend the reach of the Black community’s grievances. However, pairing the current landscape with the cancel culture of this era has supplied plenty of evidence for the adverse effects of placing too much value and pressure in the words of pretty much anyone with a semblance of a following.
When our focuses should have been on mobilization and a concerted effort toward next steps after nights of protesting, we were more concerned with Black representatives who were never meant to be our representatives on such topics to begin with. During such temperamental times, Twitter’s “Trending” section has in effect become the Summer Jam screen of 2020 with the words, actions, and inaction of Black celebrities and influencers dissected in debate that draws away from the necessary discourse at hand.
The likes of Dr. King, Brother Malcolm, Kwame Ture, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis, among others, were able to rise to prominence primarily because their advocacy for Black people was a position that left no room for other interests. These were individuals who dedicated their educations, their careers, and their personal development toward understanding all 360 degrees of the Black experience in America. In effect, we have consolidated such qualifications and expect career athletes, rappers, singers, actors, actresses, and social media comedians to speak with the same levels of understanding of full-time activists. That isn’t to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but we can look at the J. Cole and Noname dispute as timely evidence of the spectrum on which Black celebrities embrace such causes with fervor while others are transparent in their inability to take on such a fight.
In such instances, social media has proven to be an effective tool to spark the discussions that have served to broaden our experiences and our perspectives, but it also leaves behind a very obvious hole that begs the question: What’s next?
There is no debate that these conversations have elevated our voices more than ever before, placing an emphasis on a collective outcry to bring light to the causes most important to Black people. However, there still lacks efficiency in how we translate these ideas into action — legislation and community initiatives — that take policies from identification to implementation. History tells us that such tasks are to be carried out by leaders who back up their rhetoric with policy invention and active organization to see them through.
Since its inception, the official Black Lives Matter organization has encouraged a communal approach with its female founders (Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors) retreating from the spotlight while allowing the platform to guide the general population toward taking action themselves with instruction on how to effectively protest, petition and reach out to elected officials. Elsewhere, names such as DeRay McKesson have emerged as recognizable ones attached to the fight against injustice with his Campaign Zero organization launching an eight-point proposal on police reform that has particularly gained more eyes — and scrutiny — this year. In Atlanta, community activists hold fast to the grassroots efforts that once colored the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement with the likes of Attorney Gerald Griggs of the NAACP, along with other community figures leading constituents in marches toward the State Capitol during weeks of protest to press for changes from elected officials in line with protest demands.
When focus is redirected, it’s much easier to get a clearer view of the individuals working to galvanize their people. But, it will take a concerted cycle of forward-thinking support of the appropriate voices and allowing them to grow into definitive champions for change that yield real solutions.