Mar 07, 2013 - Issue 507

Cover Story
A Question to Black Leadership

The day after former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. pled guilty to a series of corruption charges I found myself engaged in a discussion with two African American colleagues.  The atmosphere was one of sadness and frustration.  “What could he have been thinking?” we asked each other.  We shook our heads.

I have met the former Congressman several times and had very in depth discussions with him.  No, I do not consider myself a friend of his, but I had immense admiration and respect for the Congressman and saw in him the possibility for new, bold and creative leadership.  Jackson was, for example, the architect of a creative initiative to advance a Constitutional amendment to guarantee free, quality public education to all children, a great idea that, unfortunately, has yet to have been transformed into a mass movement. 

Thus, I was stunned, over the last several months, as the former Congressman seemed to unravel ultimately leading to the charges against him for corruption, for which he ultimately pled guilty.

If Jackson were the only example of what can properly be called stupid, corrupt behavior among some number of Black leaders we could spend our time psychoanalyzing him.  Yet this is not the case.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am NOT suggesting in any way that corruption is prevalent among Black leaders, but when it unfolds it gets an inordinate amount of attention.

There are those African Americans who become infuriated by the investigation of alleged corruption among Black politicians and, in fact, frequently defend Black leaders who are charged (and convicted) of corruption.  The defenses are pitiful, suggesting that the actions against such leaders are unfair since, of course, white people do ‘it’ all the time.

I don’t think that I am the only African American who was brought up with the “Black golden rule”.  It goes something like this:  before you think about going for the ‘gold’ remember that just because white people do something questionable never assume that you—as an African American—can get away with it.  Black folks are always under a microscope.   So, on the crass pragmatic level, what are these folks thinking about?  Did they forget that they were Black?  How did they think that they could rob, for instance, from their political fund to cover the cost of personal expenses and not get caught?  How can they possibly believe that, as Black leaders, that someone isn’t watching?

The second issue, however, is more critical, and this is what my colleagues and I focused upon.  What lies beneath this sort of corruption, or, by way of another example, that of imprisoned former Congressman William Jefferson, is a question:  how can individuals who posture themselves to be reformers go off the deep end?

Some years ago a labor leader who had, himself, led a successful reform movement in what had been a corrupt labor union, told me in no uncertain terms that unless a leader of a movement for reform (or, for that matter, a leader of a movement for radical change) has a clear ideological view of what they are attempting to do and the right sort of organization, it is very likely that they will succumb to various forms of seduction.  I have actually seen this up close and know this to be the case.  It is not enough, in other words, to have a good platform and great rhetoric. It is not even good enough to have a personal history of activism.  An individual who claims to be the leader of an effort aimed at change must establish and elaborate a clear worldview that is rooted in building a popular movement rather than focusing on the ‘great leader’, himself or herself.  To the extent to which a leader, irrespective of intent, invests in themselves immunity from scrutiny, and believes themselves to be all-knowing they are already well on their way to hell. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.