Who Will Replace Aging Civil Rights Pioneers?

Pioneering civil rights leaders Coretta Scott King and Fred Shuttlesworth are both recuperating this week from medical setbacks. Family members report that King suffered a stroke earlier this week, and Shuttlesworth had a tumor removed from his brain. The news begs the inevitable question: Who's next in line to carry the torch of the civil rights movement? Ed Gordon discusses the issue with activists from different generations: Mary Frances Berry, former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and Jamal-Harrison Bryant, former director of the NAACP's youth and college division.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. Two civil rights pioneers entered hospitals this week. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., reportedly suffered a stroke on Tuesday. That same day, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, former president of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Both are recovering. But news of their health challenges revises a question for African-Americans. Who's next in line to carry the torch of the civil rights movement and where is the movement headed? NPR's Farai Chideya joins me today. She's been talking with author and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson about some of these issues.

Welcome, Farai.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Thanks, Ed. I spoke with Earl Hutchinson, who is a real stalwart of the LA scene, and here's what he said about political legacies in Los Angeles.

Mr. EARL HUTCHINSON (Author/Activist): Before 1965, and actually even into the late '60s, LA was a backwater, politically. By that, I mean in terms of black political power. And coming out of that '60s, there was a charge there. There was an energy, and it translated--Remember?--from young people into the politically--political awakening at City Hall. Now, of course, Tom Bradley came along, an African-American city council person. But more importantly, there was a political groundswell, there was a base, and it came from young people.

CHIDEYA: And Earl really mentioned that there was no one, no black leadership, before the civil rights movement. There simply was a complete color line, a barrier, to black political participation.

GORDON: You know, Farai, young people really were the saving grace in many people's minds of the civil rights era, the height of it. Are other young people ready, in Earl's mind, to accept the baton today, to take over?

CHIDEYA: Well, again, I asked Earl really if the issue was that there should be another Tom Bradley, another person in the mold of the existing leaders, and this is what he said.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: To suggest that we're looking for the next Tom Bradley, the next Martin Luther King, the next Malcolm X--these are legendary figures. There are icons. But they have one thing in common. They came up in a time of challenge and struggle, real challenge, real struggle. So that builds a different kind of consciousness. So when you fast-forward 40 years later and you ask the question: Where are--where's the next round of really activists, politically energized and aware of black leaders? I submit you're not going to find them.

CHIDEYA: I really took Earl to task for this whole idea of the real challenge, because I think that sounds to a lot of people who are in their 30s, like me, like, well, you know, younger folks aren't struggling at all.

GORDON: You know, Farai, there's always been this generational push and pull, if you will, and you've been on the front lines of this for quite some time. What do you say to the idea that the older generation, once again, says young people just don't fully appreciate what they went through?

CHIDEYA: Well, that's actually a really consistent complaint, you know, when you talk to younger leaders, that they feel that their efforts are not appreciated. And so again, I went back to Earl and said, `How do you contextualize these two generations' leadership?'

Mr. HUTCHINSON: When you're talking about police abuse, I think that was a problem in the '60s, and I think we certainly know it's still a problem in 2005. When we talk about high employment, particularly the astronomical amount of high unemployment among young African-American males, especially, it was a problem 40 years ago; it's equally a problem today. We talk about the high incarceration rate, that was a problem 40 years ago; it's still a problem today. I guess what I'm saying is not so much that the problems aren't there--it's not to suggest that--it's the approach to the problems. It's obvious, there's no defined movement like there was in the '60s. If young people today see all the problems we talk about, it's going to be more individual. In other words, it really comes down to individual young people that feel engaged.

CHIDEYA: And, you know, I should make a point of saying that Earl did, when I pressed him, list a number of people or a number of institutions he felt was doing good work. He mentioned a guy named Naji Ali, who runs Project Islamic Hope, people at different churches, even young people in the Urban League. And he himself runs a political roundtable at this community institution called Lucy Florence right in the center of Los Angeles. So he's someone who's not just critiquing, but I do think that, like many folks, there is an ongoing debate with Earl about what the legacy of the younger generations is going to be.

GORDON: Indeed, the debate goes on. NPR's Farai Chideya. Thanks, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

GORDON: For an intergenerational perspective, we turn now to two guests. Mary Frances Berry is the former chairperson of the US Commission on Civil Rights. She's now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and also a frequent contributor to our roundtable. We're also joined by Jamal-Harrison Bryant. He's a former director of the NAACP's Youth & College Division. Reverend Bryant is now the pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, Maryland. And we should note he joins us from the road today. I thank you both.

Mary Frances Berry, this is an age-old question. We continue to hear who's the next leader, who's going to take over, but we really have to start to look at this situation as current leadership ages, do we not?

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Absolutely. And there are some people on the horizon who would make very effective leaders, including Reverend Bryant. I'm glad he's on here. Many of the organizations, now the civil rights organizations, have youth divisions or youth leadership or people who are younger who are involved with them. That goes across the board in the leadership conference and at the grassroots level who are coming along. There are people who were involved in Rock the Vote who are very effective. I mean, all across some--and people involved in the Wal-Mart campaign. There are people--I look everywhere--who have the potential to be the leaders of the next generation.

GORDON: Reverend Bryant, I don't want to romanticize the past and think that the mantle was just handed over easily back in the day. There was tension even then. But I'm curious, for one who sits--and I've known you for some time now. You've been highly touted as a very capable person in terms of the next generation of leader. But I'm curious whether or not you have seen the ascension up the ladder as easy as you thought it might be.

Reverend JAMAL-HARRISON BRYANT (Pastor, Empowerment Temple): Well, I think that the ladder has changed in so much as when you get to the top, we're finding that there's a paradigm shift in leadership, that the next shift in leadership will not be one person as much as it will be a roundtable of people. When the civil rights era was at it height, the most educated people in the community was the pastor and the teacher. But now we have influential business people. We have people in media, such as yourself. And I think that if we stick to the old paradigm, we're going to miss the boat. My generation, their only understanding of Rosa Parks is through a rap lawsuit. And so I think it says a whole lot that if we're waiting for a Rosa Parks event that it may, in fact, come through a hip-hop musical, come from an unseemly way different from a traditional protest.

Prof. BERRY: I think he's exactly right that there will be leaders. There will be a pantheon of leaders, but there will be leaders distinctly in different fields, in politics, you know, electoral politics. There will be people who stand out as leaders in business across the board, in the civil rights organizations and the like who will come together, leaders to make decisions to try to reflect on what they think the community wants. But there's some dangers here. Leadership has forever in the black community been defined by the people as those who stand up for the general interests of the masses of black people. That is, what do most black people think they want and need and what is it mostly that they're striving for? That's the way we have in the past defined leadership.

And at every juncture when there's been a passing of the torch or a passing of a generation, there have been questions about what the new people stand for and are they really the leaders and what test do you bring to bear. Because always, people in other communities, in the--in politics--in the white community in politics, we know the history of people trying to create leaders and say that this person is your leader, and you should do whatever they say, in their own interests. So they're always tensions, and in politics now there's the temptation for blacks to either try to follow a model of trying to be conservative or to go against some of the things that most black people stand for in order to get elected. That's something that happens in electoral politics. In business, you don't have that much of a problem because the way you are successful is the bottom line. But I think that this is an issue that's going to increasingly come up.

Rev. BRYANT: What one...

GORDON: Reverend Bryant.

Rev. BRYANT: One of the things, Ed, that we have to be careful of is this new generation of leadership has to not look for an event, but they must perpetuate a movement. And they see the sexy side of leadership through press conferences and being on the front line, but no one knows the nuts and bolts of leadership. Behind the scenes I think is what's going to be the linchpin to our success or failure and, most importantly, finding the issue as opposed to creating one.

GORDON: Reverend, let me ask you this. In relation to your personal findings, have you found that you have seen tension as you're risen through the ranks? I want to go back to this, because I think it important. Ofttimes, we get sidetracked. Without telling tales out of school or naming names, have you felt tension as you've gained popularity and clout?

Rev. BRYANT: I found frustration, because I was in--you call it romanticize. I was in Disney World thinking that one day if I did the right thing somebody was going to tap me on the shoulder and say `Today is your day.' But reading through history, nobody, especially in our community--and the professor can check me if I'm wrong--nobody has ever handed the mantle. But young people have to create their own mantle. I think it was SNCC that was, in fact, the driving force that propelled SCLC to be more on the cutting edge and define for them what was the difference between SCLC and NAACP outside of geographical terrain. So rather than waiting for one of the old guards to give me a three-minute speaking spot or the speaker on the fifth Sunday for youth day, I figured out that we have to create our own movement, our own revolution and not wait for anybody to take it, but at the same time not to knock over the old guards who have set the standard.

Prof. BERRY: I want to make...

GORDON: Mary?

Prof. BERRY: ...a point, please, Ed. One is that I always tell audiences of young people who I speak to around the country that leaders are not born and that Martin Luther King, you know, wasn't born with--written on his navel: I am a leader. People become leaders. And so when I talk to groups and they say, `Who's the new leader?' I say, `Look around, you know, maybe some of you'--and think about what the issues are and where you can make a difference, like Reverend Bryant said, not waiting for somebody to anoint you and say, `Oh, hey, here you are.' And the other thing is that I think that the new leadership has to be much more independent politically, the parties. I think we need people to define what it is we need as a community and to exercise leverage from an independent point of view. I don't mean necessarily running candidates. I mean figuring out the issues and standing in the breeze and saying, `Here's what we need, we want.' We go where we need to go.

GORDON: All right. Well, Mary Frances Berry and Reverend Jamal-Harrison Bryant, I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

Rev. BRYANT: Thank you. It was my privilege.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, the jihad goes to school, and continued concern about the safety of flying, just two of the issues on today's roundtable.

This is NPR News.

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