For D.C.’s African-Americans, predominant control of the nation’s capital was an appropriate and valuable booty from their civil rights battle. Their dream, as powerful as Dr. Martin Luther King’s, was to sculpt the city into a national and international symbol of black promise, unimpeded by a white power structure. A hint of revenge laced the dream: For a century, African-Americans had been tarred as too shiftless, inept, undisciplined, and unskilled to help themselves—to say nothing of America. They wanted to prove their racist critics wrong, and believed that even partial control of the city—however flawed its structure of home rule—was a brilliant opportunity.
But 21 years after the District wrested quasi-independence from Congress, the city suffers under a severely dysfunctional black leadership. This new power elite has become as unethical and corrupt as the old white-dominated political establishment.
The values long held sacred by the black community have been tarnished. And, while black ownership of power in the District seemed the fitting outcome of the civil-rights era rhetoric, it has come to exemplify squandered potential. The recent imposition by the Republican Congress of the Finance and Management Assistance Authority (also known as the “control board”) has reinforced this belief; now, many African-Americans fear that a message of black incompetence is being broadcast from Washington to the world.
Both the dream and the fear of it slipping away were heard sotto voce when D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton invoked her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, when she called for the creation of the authority.
“My great-grandfather did not walk from slavery to freedom [in the District] only to have his family surrender a century later to financial insolvency,” she said.
But it isn’t empty coffers that threaten the dream of Richard Holmes and other African-American ancestors. It is bankrupt leadership. Except for Norton and a few others, African-American leaders in the District and around the country have offered programs and ideas without currency. They have advanced the same myopic public policies they vowed to eradicate if they were elected to office.
“We were not looking to run businesses or government the way white folks did,” says Kojo Nnamdi, host of WHMM-TV/Channel 32’s Evening Exchange. “We were looking for the opportunity to run [the government] at a higher level of integrity and morality.”
But that’s not what happened, especially in the District.
Those who defend D.C.’s leaders say the city has been handicapped from the beginning: It was permitted to levy taxes, but limited to a narrow revenue base. It was strapped with $2 billion in unfunded pensions and government functions usually reserved for states. And its residents were denied the full political representation in Congress afforded other citizens around the country.
Charlie Cobb, a District resident, magazine writer, and former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, (aka SNCC, the organization where Marion Barry learned his rabble-rousing ways), acknowledges the restrictions that have defined the city government. But he says the District’s leaders, including his erstwhile compatriot, took the bad and made it worse.
“We have to look at how the city has been managed and who has been managing it,” says Cobb.
“For most of my political life, we’ve had a black mayor, a predominantly black city council, a black police chief, a black superintendent, and a black person has headed nearly every department of the city,” says At-large D.C. Councilmember John Ray. “And what have we accomplished in terms of lifting people? What we’ve done is driven the city down.”
One dejected high-level District government employee says, “It’s embarrassing.
“Who wants to be part of a government that’s viewed by the world as incompetent?” the employee continues. “This control board says to the world, “Those stupid niggers can’t run the government; they can’t run anything. And we can’t let them mess up the nation’s capital.’ ”
The city’s elected leaders hold no monopoly on failure. Many predominantly black organizations also have slipped into the cesspool, falling victim to their own ineptitude.
During the past decade, Howard University’s leadership led the school toward disastrous real estate speculation, fading academic excellence, declining student enrollment, and fiscal collapse. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was robbed of its golden reputation by its leaders, who failed to fashion more relevant programs for African-American communities, faced charges of sexual discrimination, and frittered away the organization’s funds on lavish lunches, limousines, and other questionable indulgences.
On the surface, the District, Howard, and the NAACP seem disparate, linked only by the color of the people who run them. But pull back the skin and the patterns of nepotism, fiscal excess, mediocrity, and atrophy are identical. And so are the unfortunate results: All currently teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, the legacy of their spendthrift habits of the ’80s. All depend on funds from the federal government or from foundations, principally those headed by whites. Their boards of directors—or, in the case of the District, the city council—were charged with oversight, but passively watched as decay set in.
This trio remains under the control of leaders with ties to the Southern civil rights movement. But while these leaders lay claim to the rhetoric of that era, their actions don’t mirror the movement’s philosophy and methodology.
“There has not been a time in the history of black people in this country when the quantity of politicians and intellectuals was so great, yet the quality of both groups has been so low,” says Cornel West, author of Race Matters. “Just when one would have guessed that black America was flexing its political and intellectual muscles, rigor mortis seems to have set in.”
Manning Marable, head of African-American studies at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming Beyond Black and White says blacks are witnessing a “collapse of civil rights organizations and national political organizations,” such as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I don’t think that any intellectual in the African-American community has provided a cogent analysis of what is happening politically and economically to the African-American community,” says Howard Croft, a political activist and chairman of the department of urban studies at the University of the District of Columbia.
But if there is not a single explanation for the crisis in black leadership, there are plenty of theories about why it is affecting the black community at this time in its history.
Croft, for example, says that today’s African-American intellectuals are stuck in the groove of the 1960s, failing to acknowledge that the communities they serve have changed, as has the entire social and economic order of the country.
The Rev. Denise King-Miller, who recently completed her doctoral dissertation on the issue of black leadership, says the problems affecting African-American communities were once much simpler. But integration and the expansion of the black middle class have created far more “complex and diverse” problems. And the diversity among African-Americans, she says, has made it difficult to form a collective vision and strategy, as black people did prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Marable concurs. During the days of Jim Crow, he says, African-Americans had no choice but to live in the black community. Consequently, they were more attentive to the needs of their neighbors. Today, most of the middle class lives in the suburbs, isolated from most of the poor and working classes. There has been, he says, “massive social stratification and social destruction of the African-American community.
“You have the black middle class, then you have the working class which is steadily losing ground. And you have the poor, the unemployed, people on AFDC; they are experiencing a holocaust,” Marable continues.
But the crux of the leadership crisis, Marable says, may be the very leadership philosophy of the civil rights movement.
“People used to ask us, “What do we want?’ and we’d say, “A black face in a high place.’ We got that with Clarence Thomas,” he says. “The theory of symbolic representation only works if there are structures of accountability between the representative and the constituents.
“The question that is raised is: Are black people being empowered through the election of black people?”
The “if it’s black, it’s good” philosophy—or what Marable calls “symbolic representation”—began in earnest with the Voting Rights Act. That law’s passage, which came after countless lynchings, street protests, and strategic political fights, not only meant African-Americans could finally pull the lever for their candidate, but also produced scores of aspiring office-holders.
By 1975, literally hundreds of African-Americans held elected office, most in small and insignificant Southern towns where victory was sad but sweet. In short order, however, the road to African-American political success became paved with misdirected intentions, personal greed, and blatant devaluation of the battle that had been fought.
“Leadership after passage of the Voting Rights Act became leadership that stopped taking its cues from black people, stopped making decisions on the basis of what black people wanted to do, and instead became leadership on the basis of what it could extract from white people,” says Cobb. That pattern, Cobb adds, continues unaltered.
In 1992, the Detroit News and Gannett News Services conducted a nationwide poll of 1,211 African-American adults, 94 percent of whom said civil rights organizations were out of touch with the times. They said they wanted groups like the NAACP and Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) to focus on “quality and not equality.” They said the issues that mattered to them were crime, education, and economic development jobs.
But when the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, shortly after being hired as executive director of the NAACP, attempted to address the issue of crime by working with street-gang leaders and purveyors of gangsta rap, he was blasted for conspiring with the enemy.
The crisis in black leadership is characterized by a marked inertia. Even as many Great Society programs face assault by conservatives, the vast majority of African-American leaders who embrace such policies fail to mount concerted offensive or defensive campaigns to protect them.
Nowhere is the problem of collapsed leadership more evident than in the District of Columbia. Marion Barry is emblematic of the failed leader. His deficits have little to do with accounting: Instead, they stem from moral decay and his inability to set aside politics and his personal career for the good of the community that elected him.
The four months since Mayor Barry’s return to office stand as indisputable testimony to the crisis. Since inauguration, Barry and his wife, Cora Masters Barry, have become the targets of federal investigations involving money laundering, fraud, and graft. Questions have been raised about the activities of his security detail. As the White House and Congress stood poised to name the finance authority that will have sway over the city for the next five to 10 years, he traveled to Africa, failing to provide moral support and inspiration for District residents who feel raped by the board and the process used to create it. And while city workers face layoffs and salary cuts, Barry has quietly sought to increase by thousands of dollars the pay for cabinet-level officials in his administration.
But the shortage of leaders doesn’t stop at 1 Judiciary Square. It extends to the John A. Wilson Building. There, the council, after boasting for nearly a month of its determination to provide responsible and fiscally austere leadership, passed a 1996 budget that increases spending, completely abdicating its role to the federally created finance authority.
For years the District’s elected leaders have attempted to deflect blame, distracting the public by raising smoke screens of federal negligence, a declining middle-class population, and a hostile region for collective economic development as reasons for the city’s deteriorating condition.
Undoubtedly the city was born facing enormous challenges, but instead of attempting to compensate for D.C.’s disabilities, elected officials multiply them. Washington, D.C., is a national poster child of urban dysfunction: The foster care system is in disarray, trapping thousands of children in horrible living situations. Renovations of thousands of public-housing units have been deliberately delayed, forcing hundreds of families to suffer heatless winters and rat-infested summers; last month, a court-appointed receiver took control of the housing agency. And the city is operating under court mandates affecting at least six other agencies or programs. Middle-income residents are fleeing the city in droves, to escape rising crime, declining education, nonexistent neighborhood economic development, and overt government corruption.
But because the perpetrators of these atrocities are African-Americans, their victims, many of whom also are black, suffer under self-imposed mutism.
“If whites had been in charge of the District of Columbia and the things that have happened in this city over the 17 years I’ve been here…citizens would have been up in arms. There is no question about that,” says Councilmember Ray.
“[Residents] held us to a lower standard and that was because they looked at us and said, “That’s one of ours.’ And what that kind of attitude allows is what I call a 1980s/1990s shield of protection for black leaders,” he adds.
Conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams says the city’s history and current management make the case for why race-based decisions are dangerous.
“The District government is affirmative action at its worse,” says Williams, a District resident whose consulting firm is located in Dupont Circle.
Echoing Ray, Williams says African-Americans established a “whole different standard of excellence for the black community; we can see the results.
“That’s not leadership,” continues Williams “that’s patronizing.”
Former SNCC member Cobb says the message of many black leaders has been that African-Americans can’t achieve because “white folks won’t let us.”
That message, repeated like a mantra, “is a radical shift from the tradition of the civil rights movement and the black community,” says Cobb.
During the late ’50s and ’60s, African-Americans—especially in the deep South—did not flinch in the face of fire hoses, the Ku Klux Klan, and white citizen councils. They stood their ground as state police officers with attack dogs protected white domain over restaurants, businesses, transportation, schools, and just about every other service. They braved the possibility of death to vote. They sacrificed jobs when white employers discovered their involvement with the movement, in order to ensure equality for African-Americans.
And despite their daily battles with Jim Crow, blacks created whole communities, replete with black-owned supermarkets, medical facilities, restaurants, banks, and educational institutions. They knew better than to rely on the government or white-elected leaders.
But this legacy of independence has been forgotten. When the District’s crime rate rose, its African-American leaders charged that nothing could be done without federal intervention. When the schools began to fall apart, leaders argued that nothing could be done without the feds. When Howard University began to have financial problems, its administration accused the federal government of setting a trap to effect the school’s collapse. When Chavis and the NAACP were accused of sexual discrimination in promotion practices, Jews were blamed for the negative press and little attention was given to the complaints of the women—whose complexion was the same as that of the men who discriminated against them.
But Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lawrence Guyot ignores these facts, although he admits that the District’s leaders aren’t perfect.
“It’s ludicrous to attack the local government for something it had no control over,” says Guyot, who is mounting a campaign to have the control board legislation repealed.
“This has national ramifications,” he continues, echoing a long-held belief in the African-American community that there is a conspiracy by whites to take over the District.
The control board is a “national model,” says Guyot, “to render the urban black suddenly and totally out of the picture in the 1996 election.”
Community activist John Jones’ defense of the city’s African-American leaders is less adroit but no less passionate: “If you get in the game, you strike out or you make a home run. You have the right to succeed and the right to fail.”
Success and failure are things that Howard University knows a lot about. But in recent years, failure seems to have overtaken success. The historically black college, once known as the “capstone of Negro education,” owes its fall to one man—former President James Cheek.
A small man with a large appetite, Cheek was given to excesses that Washingtonians know all too well. The former president, who led the university from 1969 to 1989, was a real estate glutton. During his tenure, the university bought private homes, parking lots, and buildings from other schools, principally Catholic University. When he wasn’t making land deals, Cheek was designing lucrative benefits packages for administrators and investing most of the school’s money in unrelated educational programs, such as the hotel on Georgia Avenue NW. The university board stood idly by, watching the school’s cash reserves dwindle and the bills mount. But when the university’s empty wallet was revealed, Cheek didn’t take the blame. He pointed the finger at Congress and its failure to adequately subsidize the school. He and Marion Barry shared strategy, although Cheek was less the race-baiter and more the integrationist.
Interestingly, it was his integrationist, political wheeling and dealing that put him on the wrong side of Howard’s students. In 1989, they protested Cheek’s attempt to get a Republican of ill repute—the now-deceased Lee Atwater—on the university’s board of trustees. The Atwater battle, which culminated in a student takeover of the administration building, highlighted Cheek’s deficiencies: his elitism, his distance from the student population, his failure to invest in faculty and education, and his retrograde view of education at a historically black college.
By the time Cheek walked away from Howard, the school was nearly bankrupt, its enrollment was declining, and its educational programs were rendered arcane and vacuous. And Congress’ reaction to Cheek’s general spendthrift ways was to cut funding for the school, sending it into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover, despite the capable management of Cheek’s successors, Franklin Jenifer and Joyce Ladner.
The distant, aloof, and autocratic leadership style of James Cheek, which almost sank a major university, is similar to that of most black college presidents, says Columbia University’s Marable.
“The irony is that historically black colleges have traditions of autocratic and nondemocratic leadership. But more than ever the leaders at schools like Howard are responding to diverse challenges that require more flexible creative leadership,” he says.
Taft Broome, former chair of the university senate at Howard, says the institution really suffers from an identity crisis. But he admits that it all centers around the failure of leadership to decide where “an historically black institution belongs in the 21st century.”
“Leadership has not put serious attention to this question; it’s been cutting back without imagination and deciding where to build up,” says Broome.
Howard’s board apparently seems ready to answer the critical question that Marable and Broome raise. Last month it selected H. Patrick Swygert as the school’s new president. A former graduate of Howard’s law school, Swygert, 52, boasts a reputation as a tough administrator willing to form coalitions with diverse groups. Swygert is leaving his position as president of the State University of New York at Albany, where he was successful in procuring funds and reshaping the school’s mission.
When the NAACP hired Chavis as executive director in 1993, it appeared to acknowledge that it was trapped in the past. For years, the organization had behaved like an elderly relative: able to recount in vivid detail events 30 years in the past, but unable to comprehend today’s diary entry. But the recognition that it needed to move into the 1990s and prepare for the 21st century was short-lived.
The former head of the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice, Chavis arrived amid the sound of trumpets. But within a year, Chavis, like other black leaders, fell victim to his personal weaknesses. And the board that had hired him exhibited its own problems: leadership failure, political infighting, misappropriation of funds, and poor management oversight.
Like other predominantly black organizations, the NAACP lacked a strategic vision for the post-civil-rights, post-segregation era, says Marable. There was no discussion of “where do you go from here,” he says.
Chavis grappled with the answer to that question, challenging the leadership of every black organization, including those with less-than-glamorous public images, to unite and develop a program to rescue African-American communities around the country. But his vision was too futuristic for some members of the NAACP’s board.
Chavis’ coalition included controversial Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, neighborhood gangs, and those despicable gangsta rap artists, among others. His ragtag band alienated others in the organization. The conflict—along with revelations that NAACP operating funds had been used to settle a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Chavis, and that the institution was $4 million in debt—converged to publicly expose the leadership crisis within the organization.
Chavis couldn’t have amassed such a deficit in his short tenure. But board members coupled the issues—the discrimination lawsuit and the deficit—and, exhibiting truly courageous, responsible leadership, assumed no burden for the institution’s barren coffers. The board feigned ignorance about charges that its own chairman was dipping into the organization’s finances for extravagant dinners and limousine rides. And the board claimed it knew nothing about discrimination against black women in the organization.
“The tragedy is that Chavis actually represented a new answer. He advocated a progressive movement and had a democratic social policy agenda,” says Marable. “His effort was shattered by his own personal contradiction, and people outside the movement didn’t want it to go the way he was taking it.”
Chavis’ fall from grace, however tragic, was typical. Washington has seen it happen to Barry. Residents of Illinois saw it with former Congressman Gus Savage and are seeing it again in the case of current Congressman Mel Reynolds. Years ago, even the now-well-respected Vernon Jordan fell: He was shot leaving the home of a white woman late in the evening. (Jordan disputed claims he had a personal relationship with the woman.) Leadership and the expectations of the community often are sacrificed at the altar of personal gratification.
Within the past year, hoping to distance themselves from Chavis’ legacy and charges of misappropriation of funds, the NAACP’s board of directors appointed Earl Shinhoster acting director and elected Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, its new chairwoman. Chavis supporter William Gibson was pushed out as chairman.
Chavis says he thinks the NAACP will have a chance to “regroup” under its new leadership, but he defends his tenure, saying there were “already a lot of problems inherent in the organization” when he arrived and that “there was no pattern of systematic discrimination” against women while he directed the institution.
Shinhoster did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Chavis and Gibson were scapegoats for the board’s failed stewardship. Now, with Evers-Williams at the helm, the old-guard civil rights leaders are back in charge. They offer trusted symbolism, and have taken the NAACP out of the headlines.
But the disease that wracked the organization has not been cured. There is no evidence that management reform has been instituted. Board members have no plans to institute more stringent oversight. The potential for relapse is undeniable.
The erosion of black leadership that has created the current crisis may simply be a battle over which model of leadership will be adopted and replicated. D.C. Delegate Norton praises a proactive prototype that she calls “playing the offense.” But the primary culture among most African-American leaders is defensive.
“I was born into this world to make change,” says Norton, “and people who play defense do not make change. They try to hold other people back from making change.”
The leadership-model battle could be glimpsed during the recent debate over the financial control board. Norton initiated public discussion about the creation of a board. She was hoping to circumvent any effort by the Republican-led Congress to completely snatch back home rule by instituting a receivership.
Barry, on the other hand, played defense. He attacked the white boys on the Hill, suggesting that they were trying to assume control of the city without the help of black leadership. He offered his most brilliant performances as the city’s premier demagogue.
“To play defense while the District is rapidly sinking into bankruptcy would have been to deal us out of what the new financial authority was to look like,” says Norton.
But Barry, by playing the role Cornel West calls the “race-identifying protest leader,” won praise from many African-Americans who give more credence to rhetoric and symbolism than even the mayor knows such statements deserve.
King-Miller believes Barry effectively handled the controversy over the financial control board. She says the community has to stand behind Barry because African-Americans must “be in control of our own destiny.”
But because of Barry’s defensive strategy, African-Americans and Washingtonians will not control much of their destiny until the year 2000. With the creation of the control board, Barry and other failed leaders of the District have protected themselves behind yet another shield. Instead of holding the city’s elected leadership accountable for layoffs, programs cuts, and other changes in the structure of the government—the inevitable results to be imposed by the authority—Washingtonians can, once again, blame the white man, in the form of Congress. Few people, especially African-Americans, will stop to think that their own leaders actually led the city to the slaughterhouse.
And while Barry has garnered a chorus of hosannas for giving the feds the finger, Norton, who tried to protect the city’s fragile self-government, has had to endure charges of Uncle Tom.
“The District of Columbia has witnessed the total disenfranchisement of every vote cast on November 8, 1994,” argues Commissioner Guyot. “And it was done in cooperation with Norton, the [Greater Washington] Board of Trade, and the Chamber of Commerce.”
Evening Exchange‘s Nnamdi says Norton’s position reminds him of an exchange between Lenin and other young radicals during the Russian Revolution. While some firebrands argued that there should never be a time when principles are compromised, Lenin countered that sometimes alternatives could be equally onerous and that one must select the lesser of the evils.
“Eleanor was in the Lenin position,” says Nnamdi. “Desperate, with no choices. [She] either had to compromise some principles or have [congressional representatives] take over everything. And it would have been a hostile takeover.
“Every District resident feels, I think, as I do. We don’t like it but at least [the control board] is going to improve the way the city runs,” Nnamdi continues. “We knew our city government wasn’t working right. We knew people seemed to have lost all sense of decorum. We had found ourselves either incapable or unwilling to take whatever steps were needed.”
Chavis and the board that elected him had an opportunity to lead the NAACP into a new era. But true leadership took second place to self-interest, internal squabbling, and money.
Howard University’s board attempted to lead when it named as Interim President Joyce Ladner. The board mandated that she lay off staff and impose spending cuts. Ladner was blamed for carrying out this charge, but it was the board that was guilty for allowing the university to fall into ruin.
And the African-American leaders elected in D.C. whittled away their opportunity to revive the city. They became mired in self-interest and busted political strategies, says urban studies professor Howard Croft.
“[Former D.C. Delegate] Walter Fauntroy played an interesting role,” says Croft. “Fauntroy and [former House D.C. Committee Chairman Rep. Charles] Diggs essentially made deals with each other. They told people they would come back to these questions [about levying taxes, judicial appointments, etc.], but rather than come back to the judiciary and the city’s inability to appoint judges, rather than come back to the [inadequate] federal payment, rather than come back to [a commuter or reciprocal tax] for the suburbs, Fauntroy turned the attention to voting rights. [He] made the question of voting rights for himself the whole issue.”
The city’s first elected mayor, Walter Washington, was also an ineffectual leader. Mayor Washington filled himself with ceremony while the city declined around him. Residents lost faith in Washington and began scouting around for a more fiery leader, one who suited the time. One who could get a handle on the city’s budding financial problems. One who could shape a new government in their African-American post-civil-rights image. One who could tell the man—Congress—where to stick it. They thought they found what they were looking for: Marion Barry.
Elected as D.C.’s second mayor, Barry was viewed as a friend and savior. He smelled like new leather to District residents. Even the Washington Post believed in miracles then, planting a ringing endorsement on its editorial pages, giving the young upstart, professional rabble-rouser, and entrepreneur the currency he needed to be dubbed leader.
“When Barry first won [as mayor], I thought he would be one of the premier African-American leaders that would go very high in the federal government. If the District of Columbia got statehood, I was sure he would be a senator one day,” says Ray. “It was the stuff of storybooks. He had all of this support.”
But by 1982, a foul smell was coming from the mayor’s office and some legislators like Betty Ann Kane wanted to fumigate. As they had with former Mayor Washington, many whites and middle-class blacks grew disillusioned with Barry.
But the Post came to his defense; he was good for business. The African-American community also came to his rescue; he was painted in their own image. He won re-election easily, and during his second term, whites, mostly in Ward 3, lost interest in the radical-turned-chief-executive. Barry had an arrogance they had not bargained for. His government was running amok with his blessing. Special favors were being handed out. Some people thought they were living in Richard Daley’s Chicago instead of the nation’s capital.
By his third term Barry’s stock as leader was falling hard. Contracts were issued to friends like drinks at a cocktail party. Top-level officials, including the much-respected Ivanhoe Donaldson, were found guilty of skimming money from the public coffers. Barry earned a reputation for womanizing. Rumors of Barry’s involvement with drugs swirled around the city. And the city auditor issued a series of devastating reports, capturing in painful detail the disintegration of the District government: Foster care was in disarray, losing children and the social workers who were supposed to protect them; the recreation department was a holding ground for former and future campaign workers; the government payroll mushroomed while the quality of services shrank.
Those disillusioned with Barry were virtually ignored, unless they were black. Then they were slammed as “Uncle Toms.” But for some, the ’80s were considered good times. Civil rights activists who hadn’t come in the ’60s packed their Volkswagens and moved to D.C. By the middle of the decade, the city looked like a reunion of freedom riders and other political mavericks from the heady days of street demonstrations. Once they had fought to be part of the system, but in Washington, D.C., they were the system. Many of them seemed to have forgotten the symbolic pledge made to Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and other civil rights leaders that they would make it possible for African-Americans to become partners in America’s democracy.
In 1990, Barry fell to drug addiction. But despite his legacy of failed leadership, he returned again in 1994, tapping into the fears and frustrations of the city’s disenfranchised and nationalist African-Americans to win another term as mayor, joining former segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond in overcoming a negative past.
Barry wasn’t the District’s only rickety leader. The councilmembers were hardly better. Their legislative sessions sometimes sounded like Amos ‘n’ Andy repeats. They were parochial, fighting for legislation to benefit their constituents even when it wasn’t in the best interest of the city. At other times, they quarreled in full public view, calling each other names. At still other times, they rambled, telling personal stories that had nothing to do with the legislation before them. But chiefly, the council suffered from the same disease as Barry: They behaved like greedy, selfish politicians. They hired unqualified cronies. They smothered legislation in their committee when it didn’t suit their agendas. And they treated the agencies under their oversight as fiefdoms, demanding jobs for relatives and friends and pushing for policy changes to benefit their private business deals.
Sharon Pratt Kelly, who took Barry’s place as mayor from 1990-94, was equally ineffective, lacking vision and proving to be yet another race-baiter. Mayor Kelly talked a good game. If words were the sole criterion for a leader, she would have been the best the city had ever had. But leadership is more than eloquent speeches and polished images; it’s about substance. Kelly’s administration never understood the full meaning of the word.
Kelly rode in on a shiny new horse everyone wanted to touch. And just because she was the stranger in town who did not carouse and did not have a drug habit, she wrangled a $100-million special appropriation from Congress. She also received approval from Congress and the council to issue $330 million in bonds for deficit reduction.
“D.C. was bailed out literally when Kelly came to power,” says Norton. “There was a structural deficit and a fiscal deficit….That was a bailout because the District was going broke.
“John Wilson, a man who will become a historic figure, said at the time,” Norton continues, “that “this bailout will be like you were never bailed out. You are going to be in worse shape in a few years.’ ”
To many, Wilson seemed to be a madman, wailing about the delicate state of the city’s finances while trying to wrest control of them from an overbearing executive. But to others like Norton, Wilson may have been the city’s only true leader. Unconcerned about his personal image and the political damage that some of his positions inflicted upon him, Wilson worried more than anyone about the good health and future of the District. Today, when residents assess the sorry state of the city they call home, they long for Wilson’s clear-eyed analysis and doggedness. They long for someone to call a leader.
The District’s public schools stand as the most chilling testiment to the betrayal of the dream of the civil rights movement and the crisis of African-American leadership.
Many black elected officials in the District know personally the ravages of educational segregation. They or their parents were victimized by inadequate buildings and supplies and by a tracking system that advanced whites while retarding blacks. They knew it took a Supreme Court decision, the National Guard, and spilled blood to open schools and universities to African-Americans. But today, African-American leaders in the District are guilty of victimizing their own kind, exposing them to the same deficits as their white predecessors did.
Nepotism and cronyism has reached epidemic proportions. The school system squanders much of its $503-million budget on high-paid administrators and not on classroom teachers. More than $6,000 a year is spent on each of the 80,000 (or is it 67,000?) students in the D.C. Public Schools system, yet the District repeatedly ranks near the bottom on standardized tests.
In some classrooms, as many as 26 students vie for the attention of one teacher. Most schools lack computers or even updated books. Buildings are riddled with fire-code violations or are simply crumbling. Parents, who already pay District taxes, must open their wallets to buy paint for the peeling walls of some school buildings. Crime in schools runs rampant, yet school security officers are hired without background checks, further jeopardizing the safety of children.
And while this “miseducation of the Negro” occurs under the direction of African-Americans, some members of the predominantly black, part-time school board, already one of the highest paid in the country, defend their right to receive a pay raise. The fight for more pay was led by Valencia Mohammed. Mohammed came into office as some parents’ Afrocentric avenger, the leader who would right the school system. But serving on the board is Mohammed’s only job, and she did not attempt to camouflage her need or intention to take the cash—despite budget cuts causing the loss of teachers and other funds for classroom instruction. Former President R. David Hall tried to have it both ways. Hall initially said he wasn’t going to take the money, but when the check arrived, he promptly deposited it in the bank.
“I could not imagine Fannie Lou Hamer doing what David Hall did,” says Cobb. “The check comes in the mail, he banks it, and then says he never asked for it. It’s a hustle; it’s the kind of thing kids say when they sell dope and get caught: “Somebody gave it to me.’
“All they’re interested in,” Cobb says of the black leaders on the school board, “is a paycheck.”
How did the District and its elected officials squander their glorious opportunity to build a showcase city? Some say the answer can be found in the way the city is structured. Others say the answer lies in the people who were elected or appointed to manage that structure.
“If there is no way the District can consider a commuter tax or a wage tax, if the District is unable to make policy without knowledge that that policy can be reversed by some other body outside of the city, that influences the behavior of decision-makers in the city and, in a way, makes the decisions which they make tentative and conciliatory,” says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, an executive at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The decisions are tentative, Scruggs-Leftwich continues, because elected officials “don’t want to get District people furious with them….They are cautious and conciliatory, fearing intervention by the federal government for some nonsense. And that could happen for anything.”
Councilmember Ray says the larger community has to be held accountable because “they allowed this to happen through their silence.”
But it wasn’t just a failure to speak up. African-Americans have permitted their principles of right and wrong to be determined by their predecessors: “The white man did it, so why can’t we?”
Take for example Lurma Rackley, Barry’s former press secretary and currently an executive with Hill and Knowlton public-relations firm. Appearing on Fox Morning News last month, Rackley dismissed out of hand questions about the Barrys’ failure to pay Social Security and employer taxes for their housekeeper Barbara Mouring. Mouring says that Cora Barry used Mouring’s son, Darin, to launder campaign contributions.
Rackley excused Barry, citing instances where white leaders, such as California Governor Pete Wilson and Attorney General nominee Zoe Baird, failed to pay taxes for their help. “Others have done it, so that should be put at the bottom of the bowl,” said Rackley.
Rackley’s embrace of Barry, despite his apparent skirting of the law, is a predictable outcome of the crisis in leadership, says Cornel West. Such excuse-making contributes to “political cynicism among black people. It encourages the idea that we cannot really make a difference in changing our society,” he says.
“We’ve got to challenge ourselves to want to do better,” says Nnamdi. “We got so bogged down on issues of rights and entitlements that we don’t challenge ourselves anymore.”
If African-Americans aren’t willing to challenge themselves, they won’t challenge their leaders. And what’s more, their leaders won’t provide the opportunity for challenge. They like it at the top.
“Political leaders are not suicidal,” says Scruggs-Leftwich. “They want to be re- elected. Their remedies are going to approximate much more what they can get somebody to buy into.”
The question begged is, what is a leader? Residents cannot expect Barry, councilmembers, the NAACP’s Evers-Williams, or Howard’s board of trustees to put aside their self-interest in order to advance the community. How can these people be called leaders? Many of them aren’t.
“Black leadership has become a form of affirmative action,” says Republican activist Armstrong Williams, adding that many of the District’s leaders are there because of “tokenism.”
“They are not the best qualified. A lot of their leadership is based on anger. They don’t have management skills. They have a lot of rhetoric but they have nothing to show for it,” he continues.
Leadership, Williams says, is “not popular. It’s not going to win votes. It’s not going to win a lot of money from lobbyists. It’s not going to win positions on talk shows. You’re not going to receive $10,000 and $20,000 honoraria.
“It’s having the courage to do what you know is right,” Williams adds.
Of course, doing what is right for the District and predominantly African-American institutions is difficult these days. The community is not monolithic, and the issues it faces are varied.
“It’s difficult to be heard in the 1990s,” says King-Miller. “During the ’60s we went for civil rights. With Brown v. Board of Education we went for education. It was clear-cut what we were fighting for. Today we have so many needs. It’s not that clear anymore.”
Diversity is what the black community strived for: the chance to be different, to be judged as individuals. It’s the thing King dreamed about and died for. The opportunity Hamer and others fought for. Diversity can’t become the escape hatch for irresponsible or absent leadership.
Regardless of the way we part our hair, regardless of our skin hues, regardless of our political affiliations, African-Americans at Howard, in the NAACP, in the District, and around the country must demand that their leaders take the offensive, must plot strategies, and must initiate actions that rely principally on the resources within their communities. At the very least, black people must demand and should expect more courageous leaders.
Barry, King-Miller says, must “put politics aside and come from his commitment to the city.” Other elected officials in the District must also trash their self-interest and pursue what is best for the District’s future.
The crisis of black leadership can be resolved, says West, but only when faced forthrightly.
“It is a matter of grasping the structural and institutional processes that have disfigured, deformed, and devastated black America,” he continues. “The resources for nurturing collective and critical consciousness, moral commitment, and courageous engagement are vastly underdeveloped.”
The answer for black America, and its new model for leadership, lies in its history of independence.
“Freedom is an affirmative thing,” says Cobb. “The most important part of the Southern civil rights movement is not the demands it placed on white people, but the demands it forced black people to make on themselves, and the resources that movement forced black folks to tap within themselves.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.