By Dr. Ade Ofunniyin
On Friday night August 24, I was one of nearly one hundred and fifty people to board a bus traveling to Washington DC, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary March on Washington DC. The trip was sponsored by several local organizations including South Carolina AFL-CIO, International Longshoreman Association (ILA), Local 1422, Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE), South Carolina Progressive Network, Charleston Central Labor Council, Healthcare Workers’ United (MUSC), and the Citadel Oral History Program, NAACP (Charleston and North Charleston Branches). Riders included local residents, representatives from the sponsoring organizations, several elderly people that remembered the first march, mothers with children, and many that wanted to support the various causes that were represented by the organizations. Conspicuously absent from the bus were our local political leaders, school teachers, student activists, and youth leaders. The generation of young people who represented the age group of those high school and college students that helped to shape the direction of the freedom and civil rights movements.
I have been thinking about leadership lately, especially as it relates to the African American community. In the African American community, we say that one should not air their dirty laundry publicly. But I am going to hang mine on the line anyway, because something needs to be said in the interest of our children, grandchildren, and the elderly. The elderly because they sacrificed so much for us to be able to have the rights and privileges that some blatantly take for granted, children because they are always the victims of our failings, insouciance, and apathy. They will inherit the waste that we leave them to choke on.
When I was a young boy, I aspired to be a leader in my community. On my own I sought out youth groups that would provide the environment and mentoring needed to support my lofty aspirations. I joined the YMCA, PAL, the Cadet Corps, and was even a Cub Scout and Boy Scout troop member. I was going to be a great leader. I did become one for a short while. I was a leader in my elementary school environment, a safety monitor, helping other school kids to navigate the building safely and running errands for my teachers. I was very proud of the commendations that I received and anxiously took them home to share with my mother and siblings. I was the big brother at home, another leadership role that I happily assumed.
I grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx in New York in the 1960s thru the 1980s. Those were tumultuous times for young people. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was engaged in the leadership of the civil rights movement, it was in full swing and advanced to the historic march on Washington DC. Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nation of Islam, NAACP, SNCC, Panther Party, Black Student Unions, albeit sometimes dangerous, the organizations and models for leadership were many and apparent. I wanted to be a leader for my people. I had many choices as to the type of leader that I might become. I could be a writer, poet or scholar; I could be a union leader, lead from the pulpit or like Malcolm X, I could teach and lead on a street corner in my community.
Growing up in Harlem and the South Bronx in the household of a single mother during those times came with many challenges. Like so many of my peers I fell victim to some of them. My interest and gift for leadership shifted and was misplaced. Before I knew it happened, I moved from class leader to gang leader. The leaders that I emulated, Dr. King and Malcolm X were assassinated; others died, were murdered or scandalized in the press. The ones that were left behind to be examples of leadership fell short and became obvious pawns in a game of personal gain that continues until this time.
These days I live in the holy city of Charleston, South Carolina. I was born in Charleston. Charleston is a city fraught with memories of subjugation and conquest, colonial plantations and enslavement. A city still occupied by people who descend from a history where men callously ruled other men and women; a place where in a not to distant past, for a slavers fee you could purchase another human being for toil or pleasure.
Some who inherited that history holdfast to the memories of a past long gone. They still occupy the stations that were established in the written codes that forbade them to read, write, or consider life as freed people, capable of even the simplest of the holy commandments, love one another; do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.
Leadership in black communities has always been a dangerous job, requiring tremendous forbearance, courage and avoidance of any inclination to move away from the designated margins of existence.
Like the crops planted and cultivated to support Charleston’s growth and expansion black leaders were carefully selected, monitored, and eliminated according to the sentiments of the time. Those who resisted and fashioned institutions that provided for the less fortunate and for change in the status quo were persecuted, murdered or forced to leave town.
So much of who our leaders are today is tied to that haunting past; most have been educated to aspire to achieve material and political success by any means necessary. Oftentimes their pursuits and self- interest ignore and undermine the needs of their constituents. The people who put them in positions of power and privilege go wanting and are left to fend for themselves. Like me many are asking the questions, where are our leaders? Where have they all gone? What have they done for me lately?
The recent debacle created by the forced resignation of former State Senator Robert Ford of District 42 in South Carolina, for a series of embarrassing allegations, including misuse of funds, further debases the confidence that citizens have in elected leaders. Despite his wrongdoings the former senator still believes that he deserves the privilege of selecting his replacement.
Instead of humbly requesting to stand before the people that placed so much confidence in him for nearly three decades, asking their forgiveness, he thinks that it is appropriate for him to continue to assert himself as a leader in good stead.
Six candidates, all black, campaigned to gain Mr. Ford’s seat; none were successful. Out of sixty two thousand registered voters, less than five thousand showed up at the polls to vote, necessitating the need for a run-off between Marlon Kimpson and Maurice Washington. A clear indication that public confidence in local black leaders has eroded and that new leadership is imperative. Where will they come from?
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