As a Political Science major and recovering state legislator I have been constantly reminded of the separation of church and state. Whether it was the subject of study at Morgan State University or couched in a heated debate over prayer-in-public-schools during my time in the Maryland General Assembly, the merit of the separation of church and state reared its head over and over again. Yet as the son of an activist preacher that separation always seemed to be a direct contradiction to what was my everyday experience. While I thought I knew the intent of the phrase it hadn’t been my reality. In fact, I would go as far to say that it wasn’t the reality for most Black folks who either lived or were students of post slavery Civil Rights movements. For Black folk in America – whether they acknowledge it or not – there has never been a separation of church and state.
With that in mind it should come as no surprise that my father, the founding pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Maryland and the first Black chairman of Baltimore City’s state legislative delegation, certainly believed that God was God of all or He wasn’t God at all. Consequently, there was no place where God’s word was not sovereign even if it was not always welcome. As a matter of fact, Dad often remarked that he learned all of his politics from dealing with church folk in the first place. He needed only to model his older brother, Channing E. Phillips, who was the pastor of Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ when he became the first Black to be nominated for President of the United States of America by a major political party from the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. For as long as I can remember Black Clergy has helped lead and advocate for “the least of these”.
Members of the faith community used to have a lock on leadership. They came with their own army of workers and if the choir was good, they even had their own soundtrack! The soldiers in this army suffered similar if not identical inequities and the inhibitors of their progress were easily identifiable. None of that is the case today. “Faith leaders” are likely to be as trifling as the proverbial Snake Oil salesman of yesteryear. This is not a new phenomenon. Without getting too preachy, the Bible is rife with references to false prophets and those who are called to comfort His people but do not. That’s right, I said it! Shysters were abundant even in biblical times. Nevertheless, the fact remains that problems persist regardless of the era. And on some level there will always be need for leaders. And on some level they will need to be selfless. And that is hard to do for long. Human nature and history have taught this lesson well; America’s political history especially!
During the 1950s & 1960s our political gains were social imperatives. Whether or not Black folk deserved to be treated as equals and other “quality of life” issues should not have been matters for the Supreme Court of the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the land to settle. But they were. And those causes … those “campaigns for justice” were waged by men and women of God. His Word was carried from the church house, through the streets to the White House. There was no separation.
Concerning the state of Black/White race relations in 1966, the late Dr. Nathan Wright, Jr., an Episcopalian minister, scholar, and a member of the Republican Party, in his book Black Power, pointed out that “we are now faced with a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, threatening the very foundation of our nation”. Some 44 years later it can be argued that a portion of those who now hold conscienceless power are Black. Following that same logic, it stands to reason that those now with powerless conscience not only include Blacks, but poor Whites and Latinos can be added to the ranks.
This seemingly cyclical dynamic paves the way for a Superhero; a vibrant leader or chain of leaders who will champion all causes for those who experience grave injustice.
Yet, today a “Black Agenda” is not only impossible to define but there are Black folk who have reached a certain degree of comfort who would opt out even if such an agenda existed for fear of losing their seat at the table of sameness and validation.
“We live in a system”, says Derrick Bell in Ethical Ambition, “that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained”. Bell further asserts that though there are huge disparities in opportunity and income between the “haves” and the “have nots” those who should challenge the system do not. In fact, those disadvantaged by the system are “culturally programmed” to accept things as they are. Yet, with the advent of technology and easily accessible public information the “have-nots” now know what the “haves” have and they aren’t happy about the disparities. Undoubtedly there will be those who step in to fill that huge gap between anger and action with the hope of making a difference and perhaps even [insert suspense music] becoming “leaders”.
We have all heard stories of leaders with “modest” or “humble” beginnings … those Horatio Alger, quixotic stories of victory being snatched from defeat, “rags to riches”, “poor-kid-from-the-hood-makes-good” type of stories. But sadly those stories, while inspiring, are still the exception. The truth is, at the risk of sounding like a new-age Black Panther, “all power” truly belongs “to the people”. The sad fact is that “we, the people” have relinquished ours far too often. Election after election we hear of abysmal voter turnout and lament over the pending doom of this country. It should be noted that favor will never find those who employ apathy. And it should come as no surprise that apathy’s employers are all too often the same who can least afford the consequence of inaction.
I can tell you from personal experience that choosing to serve the public is a difficult choice and should not be made on a whim. Parenting aside, there is no occupation that brings with it more heartache and opportunities for misunderstanding then serving the public yet there is nothing nobler or more rewarding. That being said one may feel a fair measure of reluctance but should not be paralyzed by the same for true leaders – those who seek to educate and empower – are called by something much greater than any reason for trepidation. I would say that a leader has no more (and usually markedly less) than a 15 year run from the time most people begin to refer to him or her as such. After that time either “things” begin to “happen” or conversely, nothing happens anymore.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look … how far back would you like to go? Jesus? Okay, let’s take a look. Theologians will agree that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine. Most followers of Christ will concede that event marks the beginning of His ministry … His leadership. Three years later? He was crucified. Now if you are a believer then you know the story did not end there. But even if you don’t believe but follow History, you must concede that Jesus was killed less than five years after He gained some notoriety as a leader … as He began to help change the way people thought which ultimately challenged those who thought they were in power. Too far back? Okay, how about President Kennedy, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (post Mecca Malcom X), Martin Luther King, Jr., or Robert F. Kennedy, Sr.? All killed within 15 years of being leaders whose words helped galvanize people and began to challenge the powers that be.
Now, here lately, it hasn’t been so drastic or final, thank God, but severe damage has been done. I fear there aren’t enough people who actually see beyond their own lives to help anyone else much less speak with an authority that only truth affords; because history has taught us that telling the truth can get you killed. Leaders are neutralized or somehow rendered inconsequential at a much quicker rate than we create them. Political leaders can quickly render themselves insignificant with just one scandal. No one goes into office looking to part of a scandal but the longer one stays in office, the greater the opportunity for them to be caught up in one. While said politicos are physically alive they are, for all intent and purposes, politically dead. Other politicians may languish and wither away in seats (held sometimes across generations) with but a mere fraction of the power they once wielded. So we are left with a void that widens as years go where the hour went.
The challenge is obvious … step into the void … with our imperfect selves and help lead this world. As Arthur Ashe so poignantly stated, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Our focus must include more than ourselves or our children but generations yet unborn. However, our children are a good place to start. The older I get the more confident I become that the void is created for those who recognize it to fill it or at the very least help point it out to those who not only miss the forest for the proverbial trees but also those who can’t see the trees for the bark.
Those who are called to lead will never be perfect but the cause will be. Those who try and perhaps do not reach their goal can revel in the fact that their efforts have elevated the cause for the next wave of leaders to move the needle a little closer toward the goal. Perhaps I am guilty of oversimplifying at times but I liken leaders to cars; they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There will be some with more features than others and some with a little more polish but the fact remains that if it’s made with the right stuff at its core, even a raggedy one can move us forward.
I happen to still be foolish enough to believe that we are all placed here to fill some specific, unique function that only we can do the way we would do it. I also believe that many of us stagger through life without ever putting our unique quality to work. So as we move through our lives let us be mindful of the voids that we see and let us then begin to fill them.
Witness. Testify. Act!
A Call For Leadership © 2011 by Wendell F. Phillips