Rosa Parks passed October 24, 2005. She was an unassuming, remarkable woman who came to symbolize the black struggle in this country, and by refusing to get up out of a bus seat this humble but grand black woman taught black Americans how to stand up. She gave birth to a movement that changed America. I met her on a number of occasions but really didn’t know her. The passing of Ms Rosa Parks this week caused me to think again about black leadership, today and tomorrow.
As a young, activist lawyer in Selma and Birmingham during the turbulent and really dangerous 1960s, I came to personally know Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Foreman and most of the black leaders of that day. These men were dedicated, courageous and often they were larger than life. Privately, some of them harbored serious policy disagreements with some of the others and two or three of them even disliked some of the others personally but they usually tried to compliment each other for the sake of the struggle. Not one of them was perfect, and they all were flawed.
These were real black leaders. Several didn’t survive the 1960s and have since been elevated to mythical status by mainstream leaders and others. It is revealing to study how America treats black rebels in life and in death. Neither King nor Malcolm was viewed kindly during their very short lives by much of white America; yet, a mere 40 years after his assassination King is quoted almost daily (and more often misquoted) by white leaders. It is also revealing to understand that America never really feared King, but many powerful white Americans deeply feared what they regarded as his unattainable goals.
On the other hand, America nervously demonizes black leaders it fears such as Malcolm who, after all these many years since his assassination, continues to be viewed in frightened suspicion by many in mainstream America. The early Malcolm was one of the very first to become almost a 100% creation of television and he shrewdly elevated street corner “wolfing” and “jiving” to the level of an art form. His primary weapon was a very big gift to use really provocative words and sharp TV images to promote fear in white America.
Malcolm never fired a shot or threw a punch at anyone, black or white, and as far as I can tell, was probably almost as non-violent as King; however, he used the white media to carefully create a public image as being the personification of a strong, fighting-back, black manhood and sent guilty white America into fits. I always smile today when a young African-American Hip Hop intellectual holds up his favorite poster with Malcolm peering menacingly from behind curtains, as the apostle of armed resistance, armed with rifles and prepared to make bloody war.
Many Hip Hoppers and the romantics regard Malcolm and King as irreconcilable opposites, but the two leaders indirectly helped each other to produce change in America. King in the law; Malcolm in our consciousness. Malcolm’s highly televised threats helped King win concessions. In 1965, at Malcolm’s request, I arranged for him to meet secretly with King and Abernathy in the Selma jail (that fact is ignored even today by the romantics though I spoke of it in detail in my 1990 autobiography). King and Malcolm understood that they complimented each other, and Malcolm said as much publicly during the one day in 1965 he spent in Selma making provocative speeches.
Malcolm’s successor, Louis Farrakhan, has as many problems as the early Malcolm experienced. Powerful white forces have the power to help make and break black leaders. In Malcolm’s time, however, there was no layer of pliable, opportunistic black politicians operating as a buffer between white leaders and black America. Malcolm, King and the NAACP pretty much had the field to themselves. Farrakhan’s situation is different, but in some ways similar.
Like Malcolm, Farrakhan is super smart, super articulate and he speaks the uncompromising truth about racists and racism in America and elsewhere. Therefore, TV hosts, who consider themselves smarter than any black person, have their staffs research and prepare all kinds of denigrating questions designed to make Farrakhan appear outrageous and irresponsible. They try it every time.
On camera, these highly paid, well-known, mainstream performers attack Farrakhan with racist vengeance, but there’s never any real contest because Farrakhan is always calm, the master of anything they can dream up and he handles these people with consummate ease. In addition, damn near every white television personality tries to seduce other blacks into condemning Farrakhan. Over the years I have been asked repeatedly, “Have you heard what Farrakhan said the other day and what do you have to say about it?” One learns early on that if a black person says 100 positive things about Farrakhan but adds one minor criticism, the taped TV segment will be headlined: “Black spokesman condemns Farrakhan.”
Likewise, Jesse Jackson will be renounced forever because of his regrettable description of New York City as “Hymietown.” Jesse’s apologies were ignored. I advised him within days of the incident to stop making apologies and go on the offensive. It is racist nonsense not to forgive a black man with no governmental power for making an unfortunate racial crack but to always quickly forgive or seek to explain away the worst racist cracks about blacks from a small army of white government functionaries with power. Ronald Reagan launched his first presidential campaign with a racist speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The press almost didn’t bother to report it.
Blacks who insist on saying what whites don’t want to hear are universally demonized. Blacks who say what whites want to hear are elevated. In 1991, President Bush nominated a black nobody, Clarence Thomas, to a seat on the Supreme Court and described Thomas as “the most qualified person for the position.” Given Thomas’s modest academic background, his youth, his lack of litigation experience and his undistinguished record, the nomination wasn’t based on anything except Thomas spent his recent years saying all the backward things he knew pleased the most powerful racists in the country.
The landscape is inundated with other such examples. Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steel and Glenn Loury (before he reversed position) and a stable of so-called black scholars all gained easy national celebrity because of their willingness to minimize the effect of white racism on the lowly status of blacks. They are not fit to be mentioned in the same breath with Rosa Parks.
But too often, in 2005, these sort of pliable, nothing opportunists represent what passes for black leadership. Lord help us!
J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.