today in black history

June 23, 2024

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was born on this date in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia.

Lead, Follow or Step Aside

POSTED: September 04, 2015, 10:00 am

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I am who I am because of the times during which I experienced childhood. As early as second grade while watching television and images of civil rights activists under attack, it became clear to me that we are given a choice in life. We can either stand for justice or cower in fear, sitting on the sidelines as our humanity is taken from us. By fourth grade I was wearing a Hubert Humphrey button to school to display my endorsement for the 1968 presidential election. And when I turned a teenager, found myself serving as an appointee on a city board. Inaction has never been an option for me and I have no patience for those who are in a position to act, and fail to do so.

We are in ‘a moment’ in America; a time and place crafted by tragedy but out of which has cultivated a new movement, a new sense of urgency. With that urgency a need for clarity emerges; a clear and uncluttered understanding of our individual responsibility to ‘uplift the race’ no matter our station in life. Now is not the time for waffling or equivocation. It is a moment that calls for an accounting of who we are and what we represent.

It is a time to lead, direct, follow or step aside.

What captivated me during my childhood was the sense of forward momentum in the Black community and a seeming collective investment in the fight for freedom. And it wasn’t just from what I viewed on television but as much from what I was observing in my own community. I witnessed the campaign to elect the first Black city council member in my town; a family friend who would become my brother’s godfather. I saw how the community banded together – bake sales, dinners and church collection plates - and worked tirelessly to elect Herb Leverett. It is that ‘all-in’ spirit that captivated me and ingrained in me the sense that everyone has a role to play in bringing about the true emancipation of Blacks in America.

If anything has slowed our progress since the height of the civil rights movement it is the community carrying too many ‘free riders’ who accrue benefits from the struggle but have little real skin in the game. While there is plenty of blame to go around, what troubles me most are Blacks in positions of leadership that engage in advocacy almost as performance art; making all the right proclamations, appearing just indignant enough in public forums and wrapping themselves in the history of the struggle, but never challenging the institutional levers of power that oppress Black people on a daily basis. We have a leadership class that is generally too accommodating and too concerned with mimicking white privilege than with tearing it down. I have sat in too many meetings and observed too much submissive behavior to have patience for those who have done better due to the sacrifice of others, and know better but lack the courage to stand for right. It is why it is time for some folks to step aside but thankfully it appears growing numbers of young people aren’t seeking ‘permission’ to be heard.

“We have a leadership class that is generally too accommodating and too concerned with mimicking white privilege than with tearing it down”

What I find exciting is the energy and audacity that we are witnessing in young people today. Whether it is activism against police brutality, in defense of the natural environment, supporting marriage equality, fighting for fair wages or demanding a quality education, we are witnessing a resurgence of youth on the front lines. Mistakes will inevitably be made; that is a necessary part of the process. The benefit is a more fearless, determined and unwavering confrontation with systems of injustice. What we desperately need is an unapologetic and offended voice demonstrating controlled outrage at discrimination and inequality.

And be assured that our young warriors will come under attack, as they did decades ago. I believe our strongest leadership class of young activists came out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as ‘SNICK,’ CORE and the Black Panther Party. It is why all three organizations were deemed dangerous by our government and subjected to the harassment of the F.B.I. and local police under the watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover. Current attacks on the #BlackLivesMatter movement are rooted in the same fear; the realization that a generation of Blacks is rising up, a generation that will not accept or accommodate second-class citizenship.

Some of us need to decide if we truly want to be a leader in a movement for reach change. While others need to think seriously about the role they can play in being a part of a movement, in following a course aimed at altering the balance of power in America. And then there are those who need to simply step aside. If you are more concerned with making a name for yourself than making real change, it is time to move aside or be pushed aside. History will ultimately judge.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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