today in black history

May 22, 2024

The U.S. Department of War established the Bureau of the Colored Troops in 1863, an effort to help the Union Army in the Civil War.

A Time for Leadership

POSTED: August 29, 2013, 6:30 am

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“Yet, when one examines the impact of the crime bill on the sharply increased criminalization of black youth in particular, the exposure of the poorest blacks to the labor market without sufficient training or family support, and the lack of investment in urban schools or communities, Clinton’s positive attributes may be viewed as largely symbolic.” – The late Dr. Ronald Walters

As I listened to President Barack Obama speak from the spot where 50 years ago Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put forth a stinging rebuke of America’s treatment of its Black offspring, my heart grew weary as it became apparent that his words would not meet my expectations or hopes. For me the mystique of the Obama presidency has dulled against the reality of Black suffering and civil dispossession, and the underwhelming response of the administration to that reality. Even while making concessions for the tremendous challenge of barrier breaking the first African-American in the Oval Office has faced, there reaches a point when history begins to demand more than mere celebration and sentimentality. We have arrived at that moment.

I did not have the expectation nor did I desire to hear our President try to mimic the lifting oratory of Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. At his absolute best President Obama, nor most speakers, can come close to matching the powerful delivery of the late civil rights leader. I was simply hoping that the President would find his voice, come into his own, and use the enormous capital of the Office of the President of the United States to define how he would use the power of that office to address some of the unfinished business of 1963.

When the President of the United States speaks, the world listens. That is the case even for parts of the world not allied with our nation and diametrically opposed to our very existence. What can be said about our Founders is that they created a unique brand that has a global footprint. When the individual elected to lead our nation stands behind the presidential seal and speaks, the words spoken has greater value than other world leaders due to our unique history and the audacity of our democracy. President Abraham Lincoln understood that at Gettysburg as did President Lyndon B. Johnson 100 years later when he stood on the blood-stained soil of that battlefield on Memorial Day in 1963. What a President says and the venue in which it is said has enormous consequence for the direction of the nation.

Immediate reaction to the President’s remarks was favorable, even gushing. Such approval bears witness to a culture of low expectation that now permeates our politics. By simply echoing the thesis of Dr. King and reciting a litany of conditions confronting Black existence, commentators were quick to herald President Obama’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Listening to him suggest that we will see progress in our nation when we empathize with the plight of others was puzzling given that empathy has never been in short supply for African-Americans. We have exhibited more than our fair share of empathy, from raising the children of slave masters to crying for those who abused us to caring for the children of whites who worked us but did not see us. The truly spiritual aspect of the African-American experience has been our willingness to not only forgive but to internalize our hurt and pray for the oppressor.

Likewise, the President’s repeated instructions to African-Americans to embrace personal responsibility ring hollow against the tidal wave of obstacles limiting Black success and the absence of policies that eliminate barriers. It’s not that we don’t have bootstraps to tug, or boots for that matter, it is the reality that the very earth beneath us has imploded like a sinkhole. The personally responsible mother cannot protect her child from getting shot with a cheap handgun transported across state lines. Personal responsibility does not put food on the table when there are no jobs or you have lost your job due to discrimination or corporate downsizing. African-Americans are responsible but still face racial profiling by police and demeaning treatment in their daily routine. The constant exhortations for Blacks to demonstrate personal responsibility have reached the point of insult. If African-Americans were not responsible people our nation would not stand as the economic power it has become on the back of Black labor.

What I came away with from listening to President Obama speak on such a solemn occasion is that Presidents don’t change the course of history, leaders do. It is why President Jimmy Carter was right in his assessment of Dr. King as the nation’s greatest leader. Great leaders do not engage in human trafficking as some of the men of Mount Rushmore did during their time on this earth. Men and women deserving of the mantle of greatness are not confused over whether slavery is evil as was the man whose stone likeness towered over President Obama and the assembled masses yesterday. A great leader does not commit a nation to war over real estate or abuse the very Constitution that gives legal and moral authority to the presidency.

Presidents are not great leaders, at best we can hope that they will, when the forces of history mandate, respond in a manner that speaks to the potential greatness of our nation.

We need leaders like King, Hamer, Evers, Robeson, DuBois, Baker and Shuttlesworth who will confront national leadership and compel it to find its way to that moment of greatness. We need leaders who are not enamored with the bright lights of celebrity or the seductive power of wealth, who will speak truth to power and make power uncomfortable in its failure to treat all as equals in the sight of God. Our times call for leaders unconcerned with the favorability of public opinion or the personal benefits accrued from association with the moneyed and powerful. The only way we can construct the “beloved community” envisioned by Dr. King is when great leaders emerge who are unafraid of those in the seat of power, no matter their partisan attire or ideological tilt.

And we need great leaders no matter the race or ethnicity of the individual who sits in the White House for after all residence in the mansion is always a temporary occupancy.

What I take from President Obama’s speech yesterday is an unintentional challenge to the African-American community, a subconscious plea from the first African-American President for the emergence of a Black leadership class to save him from himself, the shackles of his office and to help him find the grace to help bring the nation to a moment of greatness.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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