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January 24, 2012

Primus Mootry: The challenge of black leadership in the 21st century

ANDERSON, Ind. — “Of all the disciplines I know, history is the best qualified to reward all research.” — Malcolm X


As February, Black History Month, approaches, I feel compelled to share some thoughts on issues facing Americans as a backdrop for a series of articles to come next week and throughout the coming month.  

In particular, I will explore some of the issues related to black leadership, not because I wish to wallow in the murkier sides of black history in America but, hopefully, to illuminate issues relevant right here, right now. As is said so often, black history is American history. Understanding the challenges of black leadership in the 21st century is therefore important to everyone.

Historically, the leadership from within the African-American community has come from its churches. The primary character of this leadership has been charismatic, usually embodied in the church pastor himself or herself. (Evangelical black churches have had women as organizers and leaders for over a hundred years.) I will discuss the church and charismatic leadership later.

But the centrality of the church in black leadership does not mean black leadership has not come from elsewhere. For example, one of the most famous late 19th and early 20th century black leaders was Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, an educator who was the first black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a brilliant writer, consummate scholar and one of the principal organizers of the NAACP.

DuBois fervently believed that the surest way to full citizenship for blacks was through education and participation in all aspects of America’s civic life, particularly the electoral process. Some describe him as an integrationist, although he later left this country and, in the twilight of his life, moved to Accra, Ghana, where he died in 1963.  

One of DuBois’ contemporaries, Booker T. Washington, was equally prominent as a black leader.  Washington is the founder of the renowned Tuskegee Institute. (By the way, the movie about the Tuskegee airmen, “Red Tails,” is now showing at Mounds Mall. It’s worth seeing.) Unlike DuBois, however, the older Washington was born a Virginia slave. To my knowledge, his formal education did not extend much beyond the secondary level, except for informal studies in the areas of law and theology.

As opposed to being an integrationist, Washington was viewed as an accomodationist. Essentially, he believed post-slavery blacks should not concern themselves with integration (or equality) but with learning skilled trades and doing everything possible to make themselves useful to society.

The highly public debate between DuBois and Washington was cleverly captured by black poet Dudley Randall in a poem called “Booker T. and WEB”:


It seems to me, said Booker T. it shows a mighty lot of cheek

To study chemistry and Greek when Mister Charlie needs a hand

To hoe the cotton on his land, and Miss Ann looks for a cook,

Why stick your nose inside a book?  I don’t agree said WEB

If I should have the drive to seek knowledge of chemistry or Greek

I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look another place for hand or cook.

Some men rejoice in skill of hand, and some in cultivating land,

But there are others who maintain the right to cultivate the brain.

It seems to me, said Booker T., that all you folks have missed the boat

Who shout about the right to vote, and spend vain days and sleepless nights

In uproar over civil rights. Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse

But work, and save, and buy a house! I don’t agree said WEB,

For what can property avail if dignity and justice fail?

Unless you help to make the laws, they’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.

A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot, no matter how much cash you’ve got

Speak soft and try your little plan but, as for me, I’ll be a man!

It seems to me, said Booker T. —

I don’t agree, said WEB


Randall’s poem aside, various aspects of DuBois’ and Washington’s arguments have profound ramifications for black leadership to this very day. For example, overtones of the two points of view were often expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The main point, however, is that black leadership in America has been problematic since Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. I’ll share some views on why I think that is so, and the Proclamation itself, next week.

Have a nice day.

Primus Mootry is an Anderson resident. His column is published each Wednesday.

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