African American National Leadership: A Model for Complementarity

By Kershaw, Terry | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

African American National Leadership: A Model for Complementarity


Kershaw, Terry, The Western Journal of Black Studies


The topic of African American leadership has been a concern of Black scholars since at least the turn of the twentieth century (Walters and Smith, 1999). From DuBois's critique of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk (1994) to Carter G. Woodson's critique of the Talented Tenth in his Miseducation of the Negro (1933) to Walter and Smith's African American Leadership (1999) and all those studies in between; African American leadership has been a topic of interest. This paper is an attempt to add to that discussion by presenting a model of leadership that has been suggested but not fleshed out (Cone, 1991).

Leadership is one of the most important and elusive concepts to understand. While it is extremely difficult to pinpoint a specific definition for leadership, certain characteristics have been identified. Some people believe that leadership abilities are innate; either you are a born leader or you are not. According to Max Weber, a charismatic leader is a person who others believe to possess unusual capacities, often thought to be of a supernatural kind, which separate him or her from the others (Giddens, 1971:160). However, history has shown that leadership is also due to a combination of social forces and a group's responses to those forces.

Leaders are created by the needs of people relative to particular social conditions. As conditions change certain individuals are thrust into leadership roles. When physical strength is highly valued then the leaders will be perceived as, and at times must prove that they are, the strongest. When closeness to God is seen as major criteria for leadership, the successful leaders will be perceived as being closer to God than the masses (i.e. feudal monarchs and clergy during the European middle ages). When, putting into practice ideas for social change are important, then the leadership will be so represented (i.e. USSR, China and Cuba). And, when "looking good" in front of the public is important, then "leaders" will have a million-dollar smile or will be very comfortable in front of the camera (i.e. many U.S. politicians). One point that needs to be kept in mind concerns changing social conditions. Leading for change may require certain characteristics that leading in the development of institutions may not. For example, because a person may be a good leader during wartime doesn't mean that person would be a good leader during peacetime.

All leaders must be bold, innovative, committed and able to motivate the masses. They must, if they wish to remain in leadership positions, have their finger on the pulse of the people they represent or be able to determine what that pulse is. If not, then they are usually replaced.

When discussing African American national leadership the most "successful" movements have been due to the intersection of charismatic leadership, the "right" social conditions and a particular social and political philosophy related to either the integrationist or nationalist protest traditions. If we look at the lives of the three most successful African American national leaders in the 20th century we can see how the intersection of charisma, social conditions and philosophy have played out. The three leaders that will help to illuminate this discussion are Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Before we discuss the forces that helped to make Garvey, Malcolm, and King successful, we need to define success. For the purpose of this discussion, success will be defined as the mobilization of the masses that results in a qualitative change for the better in either life chances/life experiences. Let us take a look at the three leaders and see how they meet these criteria.

As far as mobilization of the masses, during the 1920s Garvey helped to organize over six million African Americans in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) (Karenga, 1982). At the height of his popularity, King was able to help mobilize at least 250,000 people for the March on Washington (Cone, 1991). …

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