Four scholars and leaders discussed the evolution of black leadership from the early days of slavery to the election of Barack Obama at a forum entitled “Before there was Barack” at the Marvin Center Monday night.
The panelists examined black leadership and how lessons from the past can be applied to future struggles. The event was sponsored by the GW College Democrats and GW Black Heritage Celebration as part of a month-long effort on the part of many student organizations to recognize Black History Month.
The panelists viewed the history of black leadership in America as evolving out of an African oral tradition and manifesting itself in black churches, where the leadership was dominated by male preachers. From there, black leadership has increasingly shifted from the religious sphere to the political arena where today many believe they can be most successful in meeting the needs of their community.
“Not only one person or specific people characterize black leadership,” emphasized Donn G. Davis, professor of political science at Howard University.
In addition to Davis, the panel consisted of Antonio Lopez, a GW professor of Latin American literature, Christian Washington, a former president of the Black Law Students Association and Bernard Demczuk, GW’s assistant vice president for community relations.
The panel agreed that Americans should not venerate Obama as the only black leader.
“Barack is not a black leader, but a black example [of success],” Davis said. “He was never in a position to be a black advocate, because that’s not how one gets elected.”
Davis added that as an elected official Obama has an obligation to meet the demands of a wide constituency, which will constrain him from being able to reach out to any specific community.
The panel urged those in the audience to take on responsibilities themselves.
“We’re the new leaders who are going to have to lift Barack up!” declared a smiling Demczuk. He added that “All movements begin with young people.”
Davis encouraged young people to get involved at the local level. Local representatives love that a majority of Americans are not aware of what they do, observed Davis, because this frees them from a great deal of public criticism and responsibility.
“Bother the hell out of them,” he urged. “That’s what they’re there for. Find out who your representative is. Get an internship with them. Articulate demands to those who represent you. Electing people to office is not enough.”
Davis said that if elected officials are not pressured once they assume office, our vote was a waste.
James Jones, Political Affairs Director for the College Democrats and a member of the Black Heritage Celebration, said the event was not only in honor of Black History Month, but an expression of the College Democrats’ year-long “initiative to establish dialogue and relations with other student organizations and all constituents of the Democratic party united by shared democratic values.”
“It’s not the Jesse Jacksons and Barack Obamas, but the people who supported them [who made changes],” Jones added. “Supporters are the real leaders.”