A generation of leaders is dying off.
In recent weeks, the world lost civil rights legends Dr. Dorothy Height and Benjamin L. Hooks and iconic singer/actress/activist Lena Horne. Their deaths made me remember their contributions to society -- and also had me thinking about black leadership in Charlotte.
Much like the larger community, which is wondering who will take the place of significant figures like Height, Hooks and Horne, I am wondering what the next generation of black leadership will look like here in the Queen City.
On the surface, it doesn't seem that we have a problem. Harvey B. Gantt was the first African-American mayor in Charlotte. His contribution opened the door for current mayor Anthony Foxx, who, like Gantt, made his city proud by excelling educationally and professionally and bringing his skills, energy, focus and worldview home in order to make a difference.
Other local examples of passing the torch of leadership include: Dee Dixon, founder of Pride magazine, who passed the torch to her son Torrey Feimster, the current publisher of Pride; and Gerald Johnson, publisher of The Charlotte Post -- still a vibrant force in Charlotte's media landscape -- who blazed a trail for Glenn Burkins, publisher of QCityMetro.com.
Charlotte played a major role in the civil rights movement when JCSU students participated in the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, which were organized by B.B. Delaine, Charles Jones and Heyward Davenport. Former JCSU President Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy was a student who joined in those sit-ins and subsequently returned to JCSU as its first female president, tripling the school's endowment. There is attorney James "Fergie" Ferguson, a son of the civil rights movement, who continues to fight for justice, having helped write the constitution for post-apartheid South Africa.
Add to the mix dynamic young leaders like Urban League of Central Carolinas CEO Patrick Graham and board chair Okeatta Brown, activist/pundit Lenny McAllister and many others, and it would appear that Charlotte's African-American leadership is in place. But is it really?
In this post-civil rights age, people are quick to say that there is no real need for leadership in the black community. After all, we have a black president and black people are in positions of power at all stages of government and in major corporations and institutions. But what is missing is a collective consciousness that leaders from generations past like Height, Hooks and Horne possessed. We are the generation who has benefited greatest from the hard work and dedication of our ancestors; we are the most educated and "successful" generation since the civil rights movement. Many of us seem content and not interested in the commitment that is required to move a community forward in the way that's meaningful and purposeful for all involved and uninvolved.
Height spent most of her life fighting for the rights of all women, regardless of race. She served as president of the National Council of Negro Women, national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and part of the national staff of the YWCA. Height helped organize "Wednesdays in Mississippi," which brought black and white women together to discuss their similarities as opposed to differences. In 1986, Height also established the National Black Family Reunion in order to promote the importance of black families to the world community.
Hooks was an executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A Republican, Hooks stood firm against discrimination and worked tirelessly to promote and support affirmative action, which was under fire during his tenure under fellow GOPers Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Hooks also opposed the nomination of conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and spoke out against his confirmation. Hooks was his own man and did not throw black folks under the bus for his personal gain, speaking out against racism against blacks, even in his own political party. He was the first African-American appointed to the Federal Communications Commission and continued to fight for civil rights until his death.
Horne was a performer -- a triple threat (singer, dancer, actress) -- who spoke out against discrimination. Horne helped to break down barriers in entertainment and society. She was one of the first black singers to perform at the Copacabana nightclub, and the first to sign a long-term Hollywood studio contract. Horne marched on Washington with Dr. King and spoke at a civil rights rally with Medgar Evers just days before his assassination. Horne spoke candidly about racism and how it impacted her life.
These are tremendous figures in our national history and memory. Although they were different in many ways, the one common thread that they shared was the belief in equality as a value. Which leads me back to where we began: What does Charlotte's black leadership value? What organizations will we create in order to address issues that are impacting our community? Are we willing to speak out against inequality? This may mean speaking out against our community or political party affiliation like Hooks ... and there may be consequences. What are we willing to lose for all that we have gained?