MAXWELL:  Black leadership in the real world

12/24/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Fortunately, many well-known black leaders finally are realizing that politics is not destiny. Even some influential elected officials, although long having denied the truth, are admitting that politics _ especially the version the 104th Congress practices _ is less than effective in solving critical problems facing average black people.

Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume, 47, is the best-known of this new, sensible breed leaving politics to start the real work of reforming black life. Mfume, a five-term legislator who chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, leaves office in February to become executive director of the beleaguered NAACP.

And his reason for exchanging a guaranteed congressional seat and a secure leadership role in the Democratic Party for a less-stable civil rights post? “The struggle today is to bring the black underclass into the American mainstream,” Mfume said in a televised press conference. “It’ll mean going into the communities, going door to door, talking about personal responsibility, about values.”

Mfume is right. He realizes that black elected officials on the Hill are mostly removed from the daily realities of black life. He knows, too, that blacks have wasted too much time chasing ballot-box promises and pinning their hopes on individual officeholders to improve their lot.

But these traditions, mainly because of structural changes in the economy and open hostility toward black interests on Capitol Hill, are changing. The Million Man March in October and the Trusted Partners convention in Atlanta a month later are just two examples of the new nationwide focus on self-reliance and introspection.

“I think that the black masses are turning off of politicians,” Conrad Worrill, a Million Man March organizer and a history professor at Northeastern Illinois University, told the Miami Herald. “There has been too much emphasis on electoral politics, without tying it to the economic and cultural.”

And Ronald Walters, a lieutenant for two-time presidential hopeful Rev. Jesse Jackson, agrees with Mfume and Worrill. “We have over 8,500 black elected officials, and we still are running for the hills,” he told the Herald. “Elected officials, by themselves, won’t do.”

Walters’ words are not lost on Jackson, who recently announced his return to Chicago to head and reinvigorate Operation PUSH, the advocacy and economic development group that he founded in 1971. Jackson has made his greatest contributions to black economic empowerment through PUSH by negotiating lucrative deals between major corporations and black contractors.

Ironically, Jackson’s return comes at the very time when his son, Jesse Jackson Jr., has been elected to complete the congressional term of Rep. Mel Reynolds, who was jailed for having sex with a minor. Like Mfume and others, Jackson has learned that he can work more effectively outside the Beltway.

These reborn leaders will be successful only if they convince their followers that they must solve their own problems. Railing against Republicans may be cathartic, but it will not solve the problems of crime and violence, drug abuse, functional illiteracy, teenage pregnancy and dysfunctional families that are devastating black communities.

To his credit, Mfume promises to go door to door, talking about responsibility and values in his new job. And, along with opportunities to return the NAACP to economic solvency, Mfume has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the focus of the NAACP from one of blaming whites to one of holding black people strictly accountable for the negative behaviors that make their lives hell.

While courting corporate America for money, he also should finish _ but redirect _ former executive director Benjamin Chavis’ outreach to black youngsters, especially males who continue to maim and murder one another at alarming rates. Chavis apparently wanted to lead black youths toward increased militancy and separatism, a misguided effort at best.

Mfume, though, perhaps because of his many years in Congress and his maturity, already has rejected this divisive approach.

“We can’t let ourselves be isolated from the real world,” he told Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory P. Kane. “If we’re separated, we can’t survive. I understand the lure of separatism. When people are ticked off, they dig in. They pull away from each other. They make generalizations about this group or that group which aren’t true . . . Separatism doesn’t have a functional reality in our pluralistic world.”

America’s young blacks, along with others in the so-called underclass, can benefit from Mfume’s wisdom. After all, his childhood and other experiences parallel many of theirs: He never knew his father, he and his mother struggled to survive, and his mother died of cancer in his arms when he was 16. He became a street kid, dropped out of school and fathered five illegitimate children. Eventually, he matured and returned to school. We know the rest of the story.

About his new personal commitment to grass-roots activism, Mfume said, “I guess I saw myself with a choice: Accept the comfortable world I’d reached, or try to do something more.” His “something more” and willingness to accept an uncertain future are a blueprint for black leaders everywhere.

Instead of battling to become figureheads in gerrymandered minority voting districts that, more often than not, leave black constituents more disenfranchised than ever, black leaders must begin the real work of transforming black life _ neighborhood by neighborhood, family by family, person by person.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.