By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
During the last 50 years, there has been a constant internal debate in Black America. The debate has been in the format of various African American leadership dialogues about the goal, objectives, national agenda, strategies, organizations, mobilizations, litigation, court rulings, legislation and mass movements for change all focused on advancing the interests of Black people toward freedom, justice, equality and empowerment. But inevitably the question of Black unity, in particular the issue of Black leadership unity, has always emerged in all of those analytical forums.
The call and desire for unity among Black leaders, however, has historically been a significant challenge. The point today is not to list all of the issues and problems that have prevented Black leaders from attaining a consistent unity on how we should work together to improve the quality of life of Black people in America and throughout the Pan African world. I believe it is important, in 2011, to take another critical assessment of where we are in terms of the overall collective leadership in Black America.
I am, therefore, very grateful to Danny Blakewell and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) for the outstanding success of their 2011 National Convention of America’s Black Press that was just convened in Chicago, IL. One of the centerpieces of the NNPA Convention was the National African American Leadership Panel discussion that was moderated by that accomplished legal genius, Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree. A prelude to the panel discussion was the one-on-one dialogue between Dr. Cornell West and The Reverend Al Sharpton moderated by the venerable journalist George Curry. It was an honor to participate on the panel with The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Dr. Cornell West, Dr. Marcia Dyson, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Maulana Karenga, NNPA Chairman Danny Blakewell, and NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan (who represented Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP President and CEO).
The panel covered a wide range of subjects concerning the effectiveness of the leadership of President Barack Obama, the suppression of voting rights, the contradictions of U.S. foreign and domestic polices, and the deterioration of public education and the need for more effective alternatives to ensure the highest quality education of Black students, including the issue of establishing public charter schools. In addition, of course, the issue of Black unity was raised.
At the end of the forum, many were asking if it will be possible to continue the dialogue among an expanded group of national Black leaders. It was Dr. Karenga who reminded those of us gathered at the Chicago forum that unity does not necessarily demand conformity or uniformity. Dr. Karenga stated that the principle of “operational unity” will enable Black leaders to work together in a focused manner on certain issues without having to compromise their principles on those issues where there may be agreement or disagreement.
For me this was another positive flashback moment. In 1993 and 1994, while I was Executive Director and CEO of the NAACP, we applied the principle of operational unity among Black leaders when we convened the first threeday National African American Leadership Summit in June of 1994 at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore, MD. It was an unprecedented, yet controversial, national meeting of the broadest array of African American leaders in history. In August of 1994, the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS) was formally established in Washington, D.C. to facilitate the convening of the Black leaders to advance unapologetically the cause of Black liberation, justice and empowerment. What the NNPA proved once again is what NAALS and the NAACP have proved in the past: It is in the interests of all Black people when Black leaders are able to confer to meet and discern together the international, national, regional, and local issues that impinged upon the quality of life of the Black community.
Yes, we need to continue to meet. We need to revitalize our global sense of collective struggle for freedom. This is not time for narrow egotism or Negro individualism or selfish demagoguery. It is the time for more operational unity among all of our leaders. We must not turn on each other. We should turn to each other. It is the time for us to embrace and mentor our youth to raise up the next generation for freedom fighters. We must provide more effective options for the high quality education of Black children. The NAALS model worked effectively 15 years ago and now is the time, therefore, to reconvene the National African American Leadership Summit.