The March of African-American Leadership

As the nation and world celebrate the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States, it’s worth at least a passing reflection on the ones who came before. 

The roll call of African American leaders who served their communities, constituencies and their nation is long and distinguished. 

The dominant figure is that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., revered for his visionary leadership, unequaled oratory and selfless sacrifice, but hundreds and thousands of lesser known yet remarkable African Americans held many other positions of authority since John Mercer Langston (a distant relative of poet Langston Hughes) was first elected to local public office in 1855. 

There are too many to name, but the mention of a few honors courageous path-breaking efforts by past and present African American politicians.  

The first black presidential hopeful was Shirley Chisholm, who ran in 1972, after being the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968. 

The 1970s was a period of great political advance for African-American leadership in cities across America, following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. African Americans won big-city mayoral contests: Carl Stokes (Cleveland), Maynard Jackson (Atlanta), Coleman Young (Detroit) and Tom Bradley (Los Angeles) to name only a few.  

In the ’80s, more big city mayors emerged: David Dinkinns (New York) and Harold Washington (Chicago).  

This continued in the ’90s with Willie Brown in San Francisco, Sharon Kelly in the District of Columbia and Dr. Lee Brown in Houston, but African Americans also began to make inroads into the chief executive offices of state governments, starting with Douglas Wilder, Governor of Virginia; Deval Patrick became governor of Massachusetts in 2006, and David Paterson bccame Governor of New York in 2008. 

In the judicial branch, numerous African American judges and appellate justices have served with great distinction. Thurgood Marshall was named Supreme Court Justice in 1967, after brilliantly leading the legal crusade as an advocate against segregation.  Clarence Thomas became only the second African American Supreme Court Jutice in 1991.

While there have been 119 African American men and women in the U.S. House of Representatives, only four African Americans have landed in the Senate:  Ed Brooke, Carol Moseley Braun, Obama himself and most recently, Roland Burris.  

Moseley Braun went on to become an ambassador and a presidential candidate in the 2004 and 2008 elections. She ran a significant, but unsuccessful, campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.  As a lawyer, former prosecutor and distinguished public servant, she ran as a mainstream Democrat, giving a refined and elite image more typical of American presidential contenders.

Other presidential contenders for the democratic nomination have included Dr. Lenoa Fulani, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Jackson earned 18 percent of the vote and won five primaries in 1984, although, to many, his campaign was seen as a symbol rather than a viable candidacy.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, often controversial in his political positions and statements, added extraordinary verbal wit and blunt criticisms of the Bush administration to the 2004 debates.

Alan Keyes ran for the Republican presidential nomination advancing strongly conservative positions.

At the cabinet level, Robert Weaver was Lydon Johnson’s pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966.  Patricia Harris became Carter’s Secretary of Health Education and Welfare.  Ron Brown was Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce before his death in an airline accident in 1996.  

The highest ranking national figures are Colin Powell and Condi Rice in their roles as Secretary of State.  Powell was the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, culminating a distinguished military career before the civilian cabinet appointment.  Rice was National Security Advisor and a distinguished academic and Provost of Stanford prior to succeeding Powell as Secretary of State. 

No one person laid the groundwork for President Obama’s achievement.  But a trail of distinguished public service pointed to the White House nonetheless. 

The pride Americans demonstrate in the election of the first African American President should also be the pride in this remarkable journey of leadership.