By Ron Walters
-Guest Columnist-

When I read Matt Bai’s piece in the New York Times with the title above, I thought that he was fooling, but it turned out to be a serious article that put forth much of the thinking that has passed for this “post-Black Power” even “post Civil Rights” generation.

On second thought however, I am not so sure that this has much to do with generation, except for the fact that some of the successes of the previous generation ushered in a new class of more affluent Blacks who eschew the tactics of the past, not because they are unsuccessful, but that in the current atmosphere, they believe it cost more personally to deploy them.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not universally loved by Black people and was hated and feared by many of the Whites who now put him on posters. The primary reason was that he and many of his generation made the White establishment and the Black who were connected to them uncomfortable with the maintenance of a system of practices built on a racist hierarchy.


The courage to challenge it by some in that generation was not universally exercised by most Blacks because they felt they had much to lose: jobs, prestige, friends and even the support of relatives. I can conceive of that being a major problem today when a larger Black middle class–which has always led the struggle for justice–now feels so entrenched that it does not have to deploy the tactics of the past, not because they would not be successful, but because they would be personally vulnerable in the new corporate atmosphere, embarrassed, or lose the support of friends and relatives even more today.

I appreciate the generational feature of the new digital revolution and the use of the internet and other electronic technology to do modern organizing. But when all is said and done and the information is disseminated about the injustices taking place, it takes courage to act upon that information.

In fact, as a leadership scholar, I have always felt that of all the characteristics of leadership, the courage to act was the most important.

The courage to act produces the pressure for change–and it always will. That is one of the laws of the use of power.

It is the responsibility of civil rights activists in any generation to make the pain and suffering that results from racist oppression visible to systemic leaders so that it can be corrected.

That is why they are not loved, either by those who control American institutions, those who shape media images or even their own people many times.

Just recently, the courage to mobilize the masses of Blacks by civil rights leaders created the visibility of the oppression of Blacks in Benton Harbor, Michigan, highlighted Don Imus’ racist insults to the young Black women of the Rutgers University basketball team, demanded redress from the federal government to the disaster of Katrina, showed the injustice of the killing of Sean Bell by the New York City police, forced the nation to look at what was happening to six young blacks who faced a legal lynching in Jena, Louisiana, demanded the Justice Department treat the emergence of nooses as hate crimes and so on. The digital revolution was important to these mobilizations, but it did not place the power of marching feet and the pressure that created for corrective action.

I understand Blacks who have reached the standard of American affluence not to have to mobilize to demand justice. But until justice comes, that will be their responsibility because they have access to greater resources than the poor. The myth that electing a Black president will resolve these problems, is created by some uncomfortable Blacks, the media and institutional leaders who pine for the emergence of non-confrontational Black leaders because they work within the systems they control.

We need institutional Black leaders, but they have other responsibilities. I remember that in the mid-1970s, the Congressional Black Caucus had to make a proclamation that they would hence forth not be considered civil rights leaders, but legislators, that they could not take on those kinds of issues and tactics. Their task was to pass the laws that either corrected or prevented them.

It is still true today. We need the division of labor in Black leadership to be understood and supported, especially by Blacks, even if the media does not. So, the only circumstance in which Black Politics disappears is if racism disappears, so that those who suffer from it need not take extraordinary measures to achieve justice. In this sense, we don’t live in a “post” anything era, because the challenges are still here.

(Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. This column was distributed by the NNPA.)