On Words

On Words

 

I have no recollection of when it actually happened. In fact, as far back as I can remember, there was no one “moment” that moved me to this place but, the truth is, I love to write. I suppose that on some subconscious level I was always aware of words and the power they possess.

When I was a child my father would pick me up from school and we would go to the church where his office was housed. His office was full of books. The walls were filled with books that sat upon crude, do-it-yourself shelving that had warped and bowed from the weight of the volumes. The shelves rested upon narrow metal brackets with small slots that were anchored, or sometimes not, to the wall.

On the spaces of the wall that weren’t covered with books were framed pictures and posters of some of the authors whose works sat on the shelves; people who played a significant role not only in my thoughts but also in the progression of human or civil rights around the world: Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey P. Newton, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Parren J. Mitchell, Joseph C. Howard, W.E.B. DuBois, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Dad’s older brother Channing Phillips, Bobby Kennedy, Eldrige Clever, Angela Davis and two relatively famous Harry Anderson prints, “Prince of Peace” and “Christ of the City”.

I remember hating to read because it just seemed to take so long. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again (just messin’ with ya). Ironically, I remember beginning to enjoy writing in the fifth grade . At that stage , Mr. John Schmick, encouraged me to write and to do so creatively without much regard for factual boundary.

I loved the way words would play in my mind. How “united” things could in a moment become “untied”. Just by the shifting of an “i” you could exchange unity for chaos. You had the ability to be “nowhere” or “now here”. Depending on how you choose to use your space, you could convey how you saw yourself in the world. I liked the way some words were virtually self defining in their spelling. For instance, did you ever notice how “evil” is to “live” backwards? Or how well-balanced the word “level” is on either side of the “v”?

I guess I have loved and respected words for most of my life. The power they wield is unsurpassed and I suppose that makes sense … after all, “in the beginning was the Word …”

Texting Text in Times of Trouble

“In my Father’s house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”  John 14:2 (KJV)

I was awakened this morning at an early odd hour without as much sleep as I would have liked to have had yet somehow feeling rested. My cellphone was blinking as it always does when there are unread messages. Some of you may know it is not my practice to immediately respond to blinking lights during the course of a busy day. The blinking doesn’t always connote an emergency, it isn’t always indicative of something that must be responded to right away. True, the blinking could be due to an urgent text but it could also be a voicemail message from a solicitor – or worse – a bill collector. It could even be spam from one of three email accounts I have foolishly funneled through to my cellphone. I learned from years of jumping to respond at every blinking light that more often than not it’s not an emergency. How Pavlovian have we become?  But in a dark room … in the still of the night, I could no more ignore that blinking light as I could ignore the blinking “Check Engine” light of my SUV the day before a cross country family road trip. So I “awakened” my phone.

I began reading text messages from a spiritually and physically strong friend who has been struggling with what seem to be her father’s last days here on earth. She is a Christian or perhaps I should say working to become a Christian. If the truth were to be told none of us who profess to be Christian are … at least not yet. I don’t care how old or holy you think you may be we all are in the process of becoming that which we profess to be. Her father is a Deacon at his church and has been for many years. He is a large part of the foundation of her faith. He is eighty years old if he is a day and it appears he is coming around the last turn of this race.  She typed.

Text Message #1 [3:28 a.m.]:      “He’s talking about being scared to die. It’s not the same as when we used to talk about it …I guess it seems more real now, or we’re spiritually weaker.”

Text Message #2 [3:28 a.m.]:      “Maybe both.”

As I was “listening” to her I could feel her fear … that same fear we all experience whenever things we were once sure of become uncertain. Her father, who had been this staunch Deacon of the church for so many years, the same man who had explained and displayed faith for her and shown her how a righteous man walks in it, was now expressing a palpable fear of leaving this place to be with a God he had come to know over the last eighty years. The “distant shore” he had heard so much about in word and song wasn’t so “distant” anymore. His fear causing her doubt. Her doubt giving birth to her fear. Their collective strength giving way to a weakness we all recognize as innately human. Suddenly it dawned on me why I had been awakened at such an odd hour with a clear and empty mind. Without contemplation I began to type the words as they came:

My Response Pt. 1 [3:52 a.m.]:     “There is a fear of that which is unknown. We talk a good game but here’s the test: if given the choice of dying and having eternal life without the body that has defined us for as long as we have been living AND in a place we have only heard about but never actually seen?! And no one we know has ever been there and come back to tell us about it (and if they had, we would dismiss them out of hand as crazy)?! Would we want that or eternal life here … in this familiar place … this place we already know to be crazy? I would be willing to bet many (if not most) would choose to stay right here for eternity.

My Response Pt. 2 [4:04 a.m.]:    But in my moments of despair and doubt I look at us human beings and the wonders of our intricate design: Almost 30 feet of intestines folded into such a compact space, a complex brain that helps us make thousands of decisions a day, all the complicated organs and systems within the human body and think this can’t be coincidental! SOMEBODY had to make this thing on purpose and with purpose in mind!

My Response Pt. 3 [4:07 a.m.]:    Imagine, if you will, us walking along and finding a watch laying on the ground. Under the scratch resistant crystal we’d see the twelve markings on the face that correspond with the twelve hours of the a.m. and the p.m. The short hand marks the hour, the big hand marks the minutes and the second hand counts each second of every hour in the day. Beneath the face we’d find all sorts of gears moving in opposite directions; moving levers connected to mechanisms that move the hands on the watch day in and day out. Would we think all of that just happened by coincidence?

My Response Pt. 4 [4:12 a.m.]:    And what if that watch were to break? Would we try to fix it ourselves and risk destroying the delicate mechanisms designed by someone much more capabale and intelligent than we? Or might we just be willing to concede that … somewhere … there must be a watch repair shop with a watchmaker? Someone who knows how to fix that which is broken because he made it in the first place. So tell your Dad  … the good Deacon … it’s ok to be unsure and we naturally fear that which we don’t completely understand. And let him know he was right about what he said he believed all these years. There is a Human maker – called God – who made and loves him … a God who has watched over him for these past eighty years … a God who will eventually call him home – to that divine Human Repair Shop –to fix all within him that this world has broken and then some … forever. He can rest. Assured.

The Black Community & Mayor Clarence H. “Du” Burns

January of 2012 will mark 25 years since The Honorable Clarence “Du” Burns held office as the first Black mayor of Baltimore City, Maryland. The “Du” in his name was fabled and symbolized the fact that Clarence Burns was a person who could “get things done”.

In the late 1940’s Mr. Burns helped to deliver the Black vote for then Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. (Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Dad) which helped get Burns the job as a shower attendant at East Baltimore’s Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School. Word of his ability to get things done began to spread … so much so that his middle name may just as well have been “Do”.  

And so the “Do” was adopted as his trademark. I suppose spelling it with the “Du” gave more of a surname prefix feel. I would wager there are still a good number of folk would be amazed to know that his last name – as far as Uncle Sam was concerned – was “Burns”. Nevertheless, I am anxious to see how loudly and how clearly the name Clarence “Du” Burns will ring when January 2012 rolls around … or if there will be any real mention of his legacy at all.

When Mayor William Donald Schaefer headed to the Governor’s Mansion in 1987, “Du”Burns, who was the sitting President of the Baltimore City Council, moved into the Mayor’s office to finish out the remainder of Schaefer’s term. “Du” Burns and Schaefer knew each other and worked well together. With Schaefer moving to the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis and “Du”Burns in the Mayor’s slot, Baltimore was well positioned to benefit from both a Mayor and a Governor who knew Baltimore intimately. The fact that Schaefer and “Du”Burns got along well together could only be viewed as a plus … but there were those who felt differently.

Baltimore had been an industrial, blue collar town for many decades but times were changing and the industrial age was coming quickly to an end. Bethlehem Steel and the General Motors plants were closing. Good paying jobs were being lost and undereducated workers were going to be at a tremendous loss if they could not get back to work. Schaefer, ½ Vaudeville showman and ½ mayor but all politician, sprang into action! He began to focus, almost totally, on the revival, reconstruction and repurposing of Baltimore’s inner harbor. One minute he was playing “Trashball” in an effort to promote keeping the city clean and the next minute he donned (no pun intended) an old fashioned bathing suit – replete with sun hat, water toy  and mermaid – in an effort to lure the National Aquarium to Baltimore. He was successful.

William Donald Schaefer became known for what some would call a home grown charm and appeal but he was just as well known for his temper with those who disagreed with or criticized him and could be quite snarky. Billowing in the wings of Baltimore’s cirque de politique was an intelligent group of young, ambitious Blacks who had grown tired of Schaefer, his antics and their belief that he lacked the urgency necessary to remedy the tragedy that had become the socio-economic condition of many of the city’s poor folk. They saw the harbor thriving while the entire public school system and neighborhoods, less than one mile in any direction from the harbor, languished.

Famed attorney, fellow native son and former Circuit Court Judge Billy Murphy, Jr. rolled the angst and impatience of many Baltimoreans into a fiery campaign against Schaefer in 1983. Murphy believed that Schaefer’s neglect of neighborhoods was apodictic rendering his challenge (Schaefer’s camp would probably chose “attack”) both necessary and inevitable.

The 1983 Murphy vs. Schaefer campaign caused further division in the Black community. There were a large number of Blacks, particularly in Edmondson Village, the area in Baltimore’s western region that was Schaefer’s birthplace, who loved William Donald Schaefer. They felt a victory for Schaefer was a victory for Edmondson Village. In like fashion, an attack on Schaefer was an attack on Edmondson Village. But Murphy could not be easily dismissed. He had an electrical engineering degree from MIT and a J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law. Billy Murphy possessed the rare coupling of intellect and pedigree but his unbridled passion made some uneasy and was viewed as reckless by many of the “old guard” Black politicos. The campaign devolved and become less about issues and more about personalities. In the end, the race wasn’t even close. Schaefer won handily but his Achilles’ heel was exposed in the process; “Schaefer didn’t like criticism and (Murphy) was full of it during the campaign.”

As time moved on more of these “young guns” became prominant. None were as quick on the draw as Murphy, but they were all just as ambitious. They believed that if “Du” Burns were to be elected mayor he would be nothing more than Schaefer’s puppet, paving the way for at least four more years of “Schaefer-esk” policies, neglect and further despair for neighborhoods and the public school system.

One of these young, ambitious Blacks was Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Kurt L. Schmoke. Here was yet another young, native son who was intelligent and had been to the “best” schools in the land. In 1967 he entered Yale and after graduating in 1971 he studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University then went on to get his J.D. from Harvard. Twenty years after entering Yale, Kurt Schmoke was running to be the first elected Black mayor of Baltimore City … against the first Black Mayor, one Clarence “Du” Burns.

“Du” Burns was no longer a “shoe-in” for the post. Quite to the contrary, many people jumped aboard the Kurt Schmoke bandwagon primarily based upon his education, though I doubt many (if any) will be honest enough to admit that fact. The irony was that a great number of those folk had less education than “Du” Burns and much more in common with him than with Schmoke. And if we didn’t know then we need only to look to President Obama to learn political prowess and expediancy have more to do with relationship building and trust than intellect.

When the Sunpaper and other polls showed that “Du” Burns was trailing Schmoke badly (some had Burns as many as 30 points behind ) all the “smart” (pun intended) money got behind Schmoke making it extremely difficult for the “Du” Burns campaign to raise money. As one might be able to discern – lack of education, age and inability to raise money (based on what the polls were showing) – all of these factors hurt “Du” Burns’ chances tremendously. The Schaefer connection cut both ways … in some areas of the city it was a help, while in others, it was a hindrance.

Many were expecting a landslide victory for Schmoke, but he only won by about 5,000 votes. It was one of the most competitive elections in Baltimore City Mayoral history. With all that “Du” Burns had to contend with you could almost call that a victory for someone many thought would never amount to much more than a high school shower attendant.

You may ask how I came to know so much about this particular race and if you did I would reply, “Because my father was ‘Du’ Burn’s campaign manager”. Below you will find what Dad wrote in his journal regarding timing, respect, the oneness of the Black community and why he supported, believed and worked for and with Clarence H. “Du” Burns for Mayor of Baltimore City.

Wendell F. Phillips (August 2011)

“Power and growth within the Black Community is dependent upon, at the very least, the following:

  1. The integrity of each individual’s commitment to the overall agenda of the Community.
  2.  The subjugation of personal agendas for the agenda of the Community.
  3.  Each individual’s commitment to heal.
  4.  The commitment to true community (not to be confused with uniformity) must transcend all other commitments and drives, be   they religious, political, social, educational or financial.
  5.  Singleness of purpose and vision: the liberation of all, yea, even the least of these!
  6. Willingness to risk by reaching out and down for a brother or sister who has lost all hope.
  7. A thorough understanding and appreciation of our unique history and struggle that we might better understand from whence we’ve come and that we are where we are in life only through the grace of God and because others who have lived before us were willing to make the supreme sacrifice! There is an interconnectedness which must be passed on from generation to generation.
  8.  A trusting of each other for our destinies are intertwined!
  9. A commitment to look for God in each other rather than searching for that which divides us and causes us to dehumanize one another by labeling each other. (There is a part of each of the disciples within each of us, yea even Judas!)
  10. We must realize that when we encounter those who think differently than we do, the moment of encounter calls for celebration of their uniqueness not denunciation. As they may be difficult to endure for the moment, each one of us has his/her moments of being difficult with others!

I say all this to say that an enormous amount of blood, sweat & tears has been shed in the struggle to achieve one of the high priorities of our total community … a Black mayor of Baltimore City! Finally, through the grace of God and perseverance, we have one, the Honorable Mayor Clarence ‘Du’ Burns!

But now, even before he begins to take the reins, there are those who wish to unseat him and risk losing mayoralty altogether, sending the total community back to square one! Why? Because some ‘don’t like the way he talks’ or ‘he hasn’t been to college’ or ‘he’s just a shower attendant’! But does it not make a significant statement on his behalf that he has been able to move up from a shower clerk to city councilman to President of City Council and finally to Mayor?

The real mark of a man and his character is NOT determined by the heights he may achieve but rather the depths out which he has climbed! Certainly, God has had a hand in the Mayor’s journey! One would also have to admit that the Mayor must have accumulated a tremendous wealth of knowledge about City government and the politics of getting things done. And now, after all the struggle and grief that the Mayor and his family have endured, as he comes to the sunset of his career and life, there are those who not only would oust him but risk our –Blacks – losing the mayoralty for good!

Certainly Mayor ‘Du’ Burns has weak points – so do we all! But why not, where ‘Du’ is weak, shore him up? That’s the history of our whole struggle from Day 1! Can you imagine a more positive statement or a brighter ray of hope for all young Blacks than ‘Du’ being ‘Mr. Mayor’? It says no matter how humble your beginnings, if you have the faith, determination, singleness of purpose and commitment, there is no height to which you cannot ascend!

We now have a city with the major pieces in place; a Black mayor, a Black state’s attorney, a Black city solicitor, a Black superintendent of education and a Black police commissioner … the question is, WHY RISK IT ALL BY PITTING ONE AGAINST THE OTHER, THUS SPLITTING OUR COMMUNITY, ONCE AGAIN, RATHER THAN WORKING AND STRATEGIZING TOGETHER ON BEHALF OF ALL THOSE BEHIND THE “GLITTER” CAUGHT UP IN SEEMINGLY HOPELESS DESPAIR?!  I strongly believe that wisdom and compassion would advise a better alternative: Mayor ‘Du’, the elder and his family deserves an opportunity to be Mayor for four years and then a smooth transition to the “younger” (who would be learning much about the politics of city government and getting things done). We, as a community, cannot continuously fracture and segment ourselves each and every election and then ask afterward, ‘Why can’t we get together?’

The piece we ought be fighting for, which is NOT in place, is ten seats in the City Council! That would be a much more productive and beneficial endeavor for all of us; for if we insist on spilling blood on the mayoralty, the fall-out will negatively impact every other political race in the city and we will lose!

Isn’t it strange that Jesus wasn’t embarrassed by His disciples even though they left much to be desired?! They were just twelve ordinary men … some of whom were crude, rough fishermen! No orators, certainly not scholars but men who had a desire to serve their fellow man! But their experience enabled them to deal with the most powerful of all principalities. ‘Du’ may not be the most learned of all men … he may not have the eloquence of a King but he does have the ‘toughness’ and know-how bestowed upon him by years and years of struggling just to survive and lift himself up. That is what’s needed in these difficult days in which we are presently living. Degrees, has ‘Du’ none but scars from the struggle, many!

Do we let our own struggle to the top just so we can topple them once there or do we enable them to remain there a few years by strengthening them where they are weak and working along with them to make sure they have the best administration ever? Do we not realize that what happens to the first Black mayor, especially, makes a statement about all of us?! Do we honor him and thank him for persevering to this point or do we just toss him aside?

In short, though Du’s politics may differ from some, his struggle has been just as real as many and, in some cases, more severe than most of our own. In spite of all he’s been through, Du has achieved and made history for us all. Let us thank the man, respect his achievements gained against all odds and honor Du as MAYOR CLARENCE ‘DU’ BURNS, THE FIRST BLACK (ELECTED) MAYOR OF BALTIMORE CITY, who has worked the system well to our advantage. His being mayor makes a powerful statement, chocked full of hope, to all those young Blacks caught in that quagmire of hopelessness and despair which says,  ‘It is possible, if only you would dare to dream!’ ”

Rev. Wendell H. Phillips (1987)

Preparing for the 1st Pilgrimage

If memory serves me correctly Dad went on three (possibly four) pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The first was in February of 1977. He had crammed a lot into his nearly 17 years of pastoring (3.5yrs at Second Baptist Church in Mumford, NY and closing in on 13yrs at Heritage United Church of Christ [HUCC] in Baltimore, MD).

Aside from tasks associated with any pastorate, Dad was working on buying another building to house more ministries that would expand the spiritual footprint of HUCC in Baltimore; he had run an extremely successful campaign (“Crusade” he would call them) but lost the election in 1974. As a child, I did not understand how success and loss could coexist. Thank God for the wisdom that comes with age! His was running on empty. His faith needed refueling. And what better place than the Holy Land?

This journal entry was on the eve of his departure for the first pilgrimage. The reader can’t help but feel his excitement.  At the same time, though never stated, one gets the feeling that he is keenly aware this could be the last time anyone he loves will see him again or vice versa  … making “good-byes” all the more imperative and difficult.

All we knew in 1977 was that the Middle East conflict was constantly in the conflict. Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat were names that appeared in the newspapers daily. It seemed that stories of bombings and assassinations littered the headlines.

As selfish as children can be, I remember not being nearly as worried about Dad’s safe return as I was bothered by the fact that this “pilgrimage” was going to cause him to miss my 13th birthday! I am sure mom was worried enough for the both of us but, true to her characteristic strength, she didn’t let on. She managed a sleepover with four preteen boys and it went off without a hitch … or much in the way of a thank you … so … Thanks, Mom! Oh yeah, the other highlight was a call from Dad – who just happened to be about 7,000 miles away – to wish me Happy Birthday on February 21, 1977. Thanks, Dad!

Peace,

WFP

 

Sunday, February 13, 1977

I’m really excited about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I’m as anxious as a five or six year old on Christmas Eve. I really get spaced out when I contemplate the thought that in a couple of days I actually will walk where Jesus walked! That is fantastic. Though I’ve been wanting to get to Africa, the Holy Land has always been my first preference. Those roots far transcend any other roots I may ever discover. The tracing of one’s roots is great if in that discovering process, one becomes more secure in his “wholeness” and therefore is able to move outside of self into others. If, on the other hand, the process sends on further into self to live, then one need not trace their roots. My pilgrimage to the Holy Land will undoubtedly send me inside self, but only that I might regroup and come out that much more together to serve. This undoubtedly will be the climax experience of my life.

It’s amazing! Thirty years ago, 1947, Dad made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and now I go. The thought gives me peculiar vibes – good vibes however!

As I lay around the day before I left, I became acutely aware of the enormous of love my members and others have for me –I could actually feel the pulling inside when it came time for me to say “good-bye”! I really love those folk – intensely! I guess one never really knows how much others have become a part of him until one withdraws from the scene!

This is also the longest time I’ve been away from Dee and Pooh. It was hard saying goodbye. Pooh is becoming such a fantastically sensitive young man. Dee seemed much more sensitive and caring the last couple of days also.

I touched base with Chan and “J”(ane) – Mom and Dad – Al. Couldn’t locate Tread – Marie was out when I called. I’ll call her from New York City. Porter rode out to the airport with me. We’ve really gotten close since his move to Baltimore. I’ve really developed a great appreciation for Porter. It’s good to see him as happy as he is. He’s been through a helluva lot. I admire his patience and ability to deal with shit from folk who would seek to destroy him. His sensitivity to others is most unusual and seldom seen!

This pilgrimage comes at a most crucial time. I was just beginning to realize how drained I was becoming. Last year was a good but terribly draining year – a real mile marker for me. Chan’s bout with cancer took me through more changes then I’ve ever been through in my life. The thought and dealing with Chan’s death – or the great possibility of it –was scary as hell. I always had a strong desire to want to take his place. I really love that dude, as crazy as he is. It’s strange how Chan’s fight with cancer took me to the lowest part of the valley I’ve ever been -when he passed the six month death date that put me up on top of the mountain.  Everytime I see him, I just quietly thank God for intervening!

I didn’t get the chance to spend time with John and Diane (Eckholdt) as much as I wanted to! Probably it’s because I feel too deeply for them and its difficult saying “goodbye”. I’m as close to them as I am to my family – I really love them. Their love and caring for me since I’ve been to Baltimore has meant much to me and my ministry. Diane’s sensitivity and love for people – her unorthodox life style and her love for me has added great depth to my ministry and, at many times, in my most cynical moments. It’s been her insight and caring that really raised me out of my pit of cynicism. John is to me as a brother. I’d trust either of them with my life. He’s a fantastic person who has grown in his sensitivities by leaps and bounds. It’s not often that one is blessed to encounter those who are consistent in their caring. I thank God for their love!

-WHP-

My Name is I AM

In a solitary and somber moment

I was regretting the past

And fearing the future

When suddenly the Lord was speaking …

 

“My Name Is ‘I AM’ “

He paused …

I waited …

Had to be Him

There was no one else in the room

I was momentarily paralyzed … 

Unable to think …

He continued …

“When you live in the past

with its mistakes and regrets

It is hard

I am not there

My name is not ‘I Was’.

 

When you live in the future

with its fear and uncertainty

It is hard

I am not there

My name is not ‘I Will Be’.

 

When you live in this moment

It is not hard

I AM here

My name is ‘I AM’ !”

A Call For Leadership


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