Politics & Race
Where Have All The Black Leaders Gone?

By Michael Harriot

By 1963, John Lewis Roberts had not yet had his skull fractured by deputized policemen who attacked the civil rights activists marching across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. He had already risked his life trying to desegregate interstate transportation as an original member of the Congress of Racial Equality’s (C.O.R.E.) “Freedom Riders” and was one of the youngest of the people organizing what would become the greatest civil rights demonstration in the history of this country — The March on Washington. John Lewis was becoming one of America’s greatest “Black leaders.”

That same year, on the south side of Chicago, a young activist who was president of the local chapter of  C.O.R.E., Bernard Sanders, was arrested in this video protesting segregation and racist housing policies in the city. He had already fought the administration at the University of Chicago to change their segregated housing policy, merged the school’s chapter of C.O.R.E with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.) and forced the area’s Howard Johnson to desegregate. He would later go on to attend the march on Washington.

Some 30 years later, an entirely new civil rights battle would begin to emerge when William Jefferson Clinton, hoping to appear tough on crime, enacted laws that ended Federal government assistance and signed biased drug sentencing laws that would eventually lead to the epidemic of mass incarceration — mostly to young Black men. Some of the laws he would enact as president would be eventually overturned as racially unfair, but their repercussions will still be felt for generations by the lives, families and communities they destroyed. Many excused President Clinton for these policies because politics is a dirty game, and when making a presidential omelet, the eggs that have to be broken are usually the black ones. Those policies in part guaranteed Bill Clinton a second term in office, and made the Clinton brand so powerful that his wife now bears the standard and wants to be President of the United States.

The first time Hillary Clinton ran for President, John Lewis was on her side because she was supposed to be the eventual nominee and had the name, the power, the money and probably a role for him in her administration. Despite her support of her husband’s record of not giving a damn about Black lives. Despite her and Bill’s inflammatory racist remarks in her 2008 campaign. Until her ship started sinking and Barack Obama’s ship began to rise with the tide, John Lewis was on the side of the welfare-snatching, mass incarcerators. John Lewis was on the side with the money and the power. A few days ago, he issued slick-mouthed, misleading statements against that other young Chicago activist in support of Hillary Clinton.

Well, to be very frank, I’m going to cut you off, but I never saw him, I never met him… I’m a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved in the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and directed their voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”

- Congressman John Lewis

To be fair, John Lewis is partially right. He never officially met Bernie Sanders during the time. He was pretty busy during the whole skull fracture/March On Washington/getting-firebombed-on-a-bus period of his life, but he never met the Clintons during that time either. He meant that he met the Clintons later. Pretty slick, huh?

John Lewis is a politician now.

They are not just gangs of kids anymore…they are ‘super-predators.’

- Hillary Clinton, speaking in support of the 1994 crime bill

In the next few days men and women across South Carolina will begin streaming onto South Carolina pulpits, porches and makeshift stages to wave the flag of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as the next “Great Black Hope.” They will not just endorse, they will tell you why you should get behind their candidate. They will call themselves community leaders, “blacktivists,” politicians and preachers, but they are mostly just pimps. They have skin in the game, and all they have to do is deliver the Black vote to the moneyed politicians who need it. No Democratic candidate can win without it, so anyone with a name stands in line to sell their influence in communities of color in exchange for a little more power, or a tiny bit more influence.

Although I hate the revisionist history that paints Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as the noble leaders of the entire fight for racial equality (in truth the fight was much more cellular and they were just the best known of the hundreds of leaders of cellular organizations that helped  achieve these steps forward), they were at least models of consistency and stayed out of the fray of the influence of politics. In fact, Martin Luther King refused to endorse Kennedy because he led the non-partisan SNCC.

But this isn’t just about politics.What happened to Black Leaders? I’ve been trying to figure out a way to frame this argument since this happened:


Yes, that’s Al Sharpton. Wearing a bathrobe. Combing his perm. Taking a selfie.

The fact that Al Sharpton wears a Polo bathrobe and fuzzy slippers doesn’t bother me. Nor does the fact that he thinks it is ok for him to take this picture and release it. What bothers me is that everyone else thinks it is ok. No one even mentioned it. In the interest of fairness, I believe that most people regard Al Sharpton as a caricature anyway. Al Sharpton is a Black Leader in the same way P. Diddy is a hip hop artist. We think he’s kinda lame and disregard him, but white people think he’s the go-to guy for the culture. If Al Sharpton really had any real weight and cache in the Black community, if there was s speck of a possibility that Sharpton would say or could inspire something real or revolutionary, there is no way one of the largest corporations in the world would allow him a prime time show with a national television audience.

After attending the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March (I was also at the original) and seeing who was on stage, I realized there were no more Black leaders —  just preachers trying to get a few more tithes-payers and a varied assortment of kooks, conspirists and chest-thumpers. Then I ran down the list of prospects:

  • After I saw DeRay McKesson chumming it up with Stephen Colbert on late-night tv with his signature puffy vest peacocking like Al Sharpton’s hairdo, I crossed him off the list (Never trust a man who wears a costume… Except Batman.) Since then, he has announced that he is officially becoming a politician.
  • Louis Farrakhan? I thought he was a good prospect until a friend said “Mike, you know who killed Malcolm X. Besides, with as many acolytes and as much perceived power as he has, if he was interested in doing anything revolutionary  do you think  they would have let him live to see 82?” Scratch.
  • That same friend brought up Dr. Umar Johnson, but his misogyny, obsession with homosexuality, non-fact based theories, a “conscious stripper,” and his non-Google-able education outed him (Seriously. Google the schools where Dr. Umar Johnson received his “doctorate.” Apparently no one can. As I’ve always said, anyone who gives themselves a nickname like The Prince of Pan-Afrikanism…) I crossed him off the list.
  • I crossed the leaders of “Black Lives Matter” off the list because I have personally been in the heart of both Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprising and have never met anyone who said “I’m with ‘Black Lives Matter’. ” I personally believe Black Lives Matter, but I contend that Black Lives Matter is a saying and a hashtag that we use to remind the world that our bodies are important, and a few “blacktivists” are trying to make it an organization. The rest of the caucasian universe believes it is the Black Illuminati that somehow recruited Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar.
  • Cornell West? C’mon son.

Maybe there are no more Black Leaders. Maybe there shouldn’t be. We live in a world with interests so disparate and information so ubiquitous and available that we no longer need a human being to become a uniting rallying cryer. If you look at the trends of global change from Arab Spring to Chinese demonstrations it is apparent that the new leader of all revolution is information and technology. Do we need someone to tell us that we’ve been “hoodwinked, bamboozled… led astray?” Will there ever be another “I have a dream speech?”

The bigger question is: Who’s going to make that speech without having the invisible corporate hand on the small of their back leading the waltz, and the politics of power waiting in the wings for the next dance?

The truth-tellers and justice-seekers are disappeared, and there are just charlatans in their place. As long as there is someone who needs black votes, black dollars or black attention there will be someone there to exploit it. We should give all of them the collective side-eye, if only because scrutiny is the friend of truth. They all invariably turn out to pimps trying to sell us to people who need a little “piece on the side.”

All of the Black leaders are gone. There are no more.

I’m fine with that.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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