The Crisis of Black Leadership: As Old Hands Like Al Sharpton Show Their Age, Who Will Take Up the Reins?


The question seemed simple enough: Who is considered a leader in the black community? Immediately, President Barack Obama and his amazing wife Michelle came to mind, followed by a slew of other notable African American figures (Cornel West, Oprah Winfrey, the regulars). However, when I was asked who is a millennial black leader – specifically someone outside of the entertainment world –– I was stumped.

I have always considered myself well-versed in issues that affect young people and the black community, so the fact that I could not come up with a single name for a young black leader was disturbing. Apparently, I am not the only person to have this problem.

“I think one of the defining aspects of our age is a lack of black leadership (that is known on a national stage) who we look up to. Even for those of us who believe deeply in the power of government, we can't help but be a bit disappointed by how large-scale political figures seem to be behaving,” said Daniel Stringer, a Ph.D graduate working in tech education in North Carolina.

And that sentiment was echoed again and again by a plethora of young black people who I interviewed for this article, most of whom couldn’t name a well-known person who reflected their definition of leadership.

“I can think of individuals who I know personally who are doing great things,” Stringer added, “but it's harder to think of big names.”

I have to agree. Some of the people that I admire most are friends or cherished family members. Yet, African Americans need other people to rally around, people who are advocating for our community and working to better our lives.

So, I went on the hunt, pouring through 40 under 40 lists, top 10 rising stars articles , and so on. In the midst of this research, I had a bittersweet realization.

On the one hand, I discovered many amazing young people who are making a huge impact on the world, whether it’s in business, politics, education, or the arts. Even more, a large number of these young people are female, like the 36-year-old president of Yahoo Marissa Mayer, and from diverse backgrounds, like Muslim-American Huma Abedin (a top aide to Hillary Clinton).

For African Americans, however, my findings were not as promising. Seeing the statistics regarding the high rate of black male incarcerationunemployment, and the lack of a black presence outside of sports and entertainmentmade me little disheartened.

Despite these initial results, I dug a little deeper, and eventually, I began finding exactly what I was looking for.

Before going any farther, it’s important to define what a black leader is, or better yet, clarify the definition of any leader. Undoubtedly, leadership comes in a variety of forms, whether it’s the person sitting in the Oval Office or an overworked community organizer.

“There are so many different ways to be a leader,” said Andrew “Bo” Young, III, CEO of the social giving platform The site allows users to donate money to people in need, giving donors the chance to directly impact and interact with those they’re helping. He’s also the son of famed Civil Rights Movement activist Andrew Young, Jr., whom he credits as a role model in his life. “A big part of leadership is not being concerned with who gets the credit.”

For Daniell Washington, the founder of The Big Blue and You, an organization that teaches kids the importance of ocean conservation and protecting the environment, being willing to take a stand is another critical component. “That alone inspires everyone around [a leader] to go after whatever his or her individual dream is.” 

With that in mind, I define a leader as someone who inspires others to action, impacts those around them, and is committed to the mission, not the money (or fame, glory, or Twitter followers). A true leader does not wait for others to do what they say; they’re too busy living out their own words. This definition crosses boundaries, whether someone is a leader in the black community, business world, or in his/her hometown.

The turbulent Civil Rights Movement showed the best (and worst) sides of America. From the turmoil, great leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X stepped forward to help guide the nation to a brighter future. In the process, these men and women embodied the ideals of leadership, especially when it comes to ensuring positive impacts for the black community. Although they worked hard, they never fully achieved the promise of integration, equal employment, and better voting rights, so they left room for the next generation of leaders to step forward. As the likes of Jesse Jackson created coalitions and Rev. Al Sharpton preached justice to the masses, their influence grew throughout the late 1970s until now. 

However, whether we like to admit it or not, many of these people who have championed issues that affect the black community are beginning to show their age. For instance, Rep. Charles Rangel (D – NY) has been in office for the past 41 years. We should applaud his longevity; he was elected to office in 1971 and has since helped to establish the Congressional Black Caucus and he served as chair of the influential Ways and Means committee. However, the 82-year-old’s decision not to step down in 2012 prevents younger black congressional hopefuls like Clyde Williams from making their own rise in government. Rather than gracefully pass down the torch to the next generation, Rangel fought (almost) to the death in this year's primary in order to keep his spot. Instead of uniting his constituents, which are mostly African American, he has only created tension among his supporters in his district.

Rangel’s story is not unique. Just look at the people lauded as black leaders today, and the same pattern holds true. Even the esteemed NAACP had trouble dealing with the hand-off of power, when current President Benjamin Jealous was elected to lead the oldest civil rights organization at the tender age of 35 in 2008. Some of the seasoned board members were unsure if he could handle the job, but those fears were proven wrong, as he has deftly led the organization into the 21st century.

So where are other young black people who are willing to step up to the frontlines? It appears that they’re busy getting their education. Let’s look at the numbers: 82% of African Americans have at least a high school diploma, while 18% have a bachelor’s degree. This is up from 3.1% in 1960. Among blacks over 25, 1.5 million have an advanced degree. When compared to rest of the nation, there’s still room for improvement, but things are definitely getting better.

While some African Americans choose to stay in academia or other areas in the education field, many go on to have successful careers in law, medicine, business, and more. Although they face their own array of challenge in whatever profession they chose, the talented few stand out as leaders in their field. However, African Americans who are partners at top international law firms don’t get the same amount of attention as black athletes with their own shoe lines or rappers who drive fancy cars. While City Hall may not be as glamorous as the red carpet, the people working day to day deserve just as much, if not more, attention.

If African Americans are everywhere, from the classroom to the boardroom, why are young leaders in the black community so hard to find? One reason is because labels like "black community leader" are too limiting for our generation.

“Being pigeon-holed as a leader in the black community … isn’t applicable [to] me,” said Daniell Washington. The marine biology major graduated from the University of Miami in 2008, the same year she launched her nonprofit, earning her a spread in Black Enterprise“Although I’m very much involved in the [black] community, I like to see myself as an overall leader, for everybody.”

That sentiment pops up again and again, as young people make moves that not only help other African Americans, but everyone.

“Being black is just an adjective that describes the color or ethnicity of the person leading. ‘In the black community’ is just an adjective phrase to describe the geographical location in which a leader has chosen to concentrate,” said Damon Dunn, the former NFL player who is now running as a candidate for California Secretary of State. Dunn pursued a career in politics, running against Democrat Debra Bowen in 2010. Even though he lost the election, he was appointed as a visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The work of Green For All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is demonstrative of the importance of inclusivity. She has served as CEO of the company since 2009. The CSU Northridge graduate has taken her passion for the environment and desire to help people in urban areas all the way to White House. Under her leadership, the organization helped ensure that the ACES Act would include green job training and give local workers access to renewable energy projects. Although Ellis-Lamkins is African American, for her, the most important color is green.

This also holds true for Rep. Bakari Sellers, a state representative in South Carolina since his election in 2006 at the age of 22. He’s worked tirelessly to improve his district, and he champions education reform for the state. Like Young, he too comes from a family of Civil Rights activists, but he hopes to continue the legacy by helping people of all colors.

These “youngsters” have benefited from the work of tenured African Americans who have been fighting at the frontlines, but it’s time for the weary warriors to step back so others can step forward. Of course, those mentioned are only a few of the manymanymanymany other young black people out there breaking through barriers to make things better for everyone. 

As a young black millennial, that is the kind of leadership that I –– and I would hope many others –– can get behind.