Black leaders are defined as such because they act in the interests of their community and race. Not only do they promote progression for their own communities, but they also help break down the social barriers imposed on other minorities. A black leader is usually of important status in a major socioeconomic institution. Jacob U. Gordon in his book Black Leadership for Social Change defines black leadership as "the process of black self-determination, a search for the realization of the 'American Dream' for all black Americans." Black leaders will encourage racial solidarity, cultural and religious nationalism and black nationalism.
The history of black leadership stems back to enslavement and emancipation of the African-American people. The American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution first introduced the ideologies of freedom and equality to all Americans, including the black slaves. Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Gustavus Vassa, Benjamin Banneker and Paul Cuffe were the first blacks in America to earn their own independence and become self-sufficient. Blacks in the North began opening their own schools, knowing full well that the key to freedom is knowledge. The Right Rev. Richard Allen formed the Free African Society in 1787, providing aid for African Americans. Allen strove to enforce discipline among his fellow blacks, forbidding drunkenness and bad behavior and encouraging industry. He and Absolom Jones formed the St. Thomas African Protestant Episcopal Church and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an attempt to break away from the white Methodist church and establish a sense of community. Allen knew that the only weapon his people had against discrimination and degradation was a sense of pride and accomplishment.
In the early 19th century, the first real stirrings for emancipation began to shake the foundations of slavery and the production of cotton in America. At this time, a number of slave revolts rocked the foundations of plantation society in the South. Nat Turner, a slave preacher from Southampton County, led a historic revolt in which he and his fellow slaves killed their master and more than 60 white men. They were later tried and hanged, yet they had managed to break the white perception of blacks as submissive and infantile. Prior to the Civil War, Frederick Douglass acted as a political representative for the African-American community. Douglass acted as a consultant to President Abraham Lincoln regarding African-American affairs. He was a self-educated slave with impressive oratory skills that he used publicly to condemn slavery. Douglass was quoted as saying: "If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."
The challenges and hardships the African-American community faced brought about potential for leadership among those brave enough to seek it. Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom and helped more than 300 slaves find safe passage via the Underground Railroad across the Mason-Dixon Line. Martin R. Delany was a great proponent of PanAfricanism, a form of nationalism that emphasizes pride in African heritage. After the Civil War, from 1870 to 1901, 22 blacks served as congressmen. These men were well-educated, ambitious and dignified.
Despite the fact that the blacks had won their freedom and the vote, racial discrimination ran rampant well into the 20th century. The Ku Klux Klan was a violent threat in the South, thwarting blacks from maintaining their constitutional rights. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, a well-educated civil rights leader, demanded full citizenship for blacks. During the 1940s, Du Bois was active in the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Other black civil rights leaders during the 1940s and 1950s included Whitney Young Jr., Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph.
The most influential and memorable of all black civil rights leaders was Martin Luther King Jr. In 1955, after Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a bus, King initiated a boycott that effectively ended racial segregation on public transportation. He formed several organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He organized mass protests and marches that prompted the major civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 and made him iconic for his speech "I Have A Dream." In 1968, King was assassinated. Other civil rights leaders that followed in King's footsteps were Edward William Brooke, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall.