Generational Shift of Black Leaders
The rising generation of leaders comes from diverse backgrounds
BOSTON — WHEN Benjamin Hooks retires this month as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the event will mark another milestone in a generational shift that is taking place in black leadership in the United States. Those mentioned to succeed him - including Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, and Jesse Jackson - are half a generation younger than Mr. Hooks, who is 68.
Hooks belongs to a generation of black Americans who wrought a historic civil rights revolution in the country. Now, many major figures of that generation either are gone (Thurgood Marshall most recently) or - like Hooks - are what Washington Post columnist Juan Williams calls "graying revolutionaries."
As their ranks thin, a new generation of African-Americans is assuming positions of leadership not only in civil rights organizations, but also in politics, business, academia, and the arts.
While black scholars agree that this transition is occurring, they point out that the leadership structure in black America is changing in other respects as well.
"The civil rights movement embedded reforms in political and legal institutions," says Prof. Ron Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University in Washington. "Consequently, black leadership has shifted in part from ministers and civil rights activists to government officials."
Arvarh Strickland, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, Columbia, similarly notes that whereas the earlier black leaders came heavily from churches, today many leaders are coming from business and the professions as blacks have found greater opportunity in those fields. "The leadership spectrum has broadened," Dr. Strickland says.
Some black scholars say that, in contrast to many generational shifts, younger black leaders today largely share the perspectives of their predecessors. "The ideas [regarding the place of blacks in America] being brought forward by younger leaders are not that different," says political science Prof. Ron Brown of Wayne State University in Detroit. "Incorporation is still the goal."
According to Professors Brown, Walters, and Strickland, such developments as blacks' growing focus on African culture, the creation of magnet schools designed to appeal to black students, and the growth of black suburbs do not betoken a retreat from the goal of integration.
"Blacks, like other groups, enjoy being with their own people," Walters notes. "But they still want free access to all aspects of the American culture and economy."
But if younger African-Americans generally share common ideals with their elders, many young blacks say that black leaders should focus somewhat less on civil rights and more on economic and social issues like jobs, education, and drug abuse. (See charts at right.)
While the civil rights leaders opened doors for black people throughout American life, Mr. Williams says their triumphs also "slowed development of the next generation of black leaders.... The new generation has been inhibited from putting itself forward for fear of appearing to contravene the honor due to the older leaders."
Today, however, with the changing of the guard, younger African-Americans are putting their own imprint on the black experience in America.