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Would Black Leaders Be Better Off as Outsiders?

Next week, Americans will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The march's signature event, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, continues to stir the nation after four decades.

Yet the black community still struggles to decide whether to follow King's prophetic tradition or to lead via political office. It's a difficult choice. Should black leadership choose the latter course, forgetting King's prophetic voice would be a serious mistake.

What is the "prophetic tradition"? It's a biblical approach to leadership that has allowed the black community to proudly maintain its political independence while serving as the conscience of society. Instead of aligning themselves with a political party, prophetic leaders criticize the existing order, while exhorting the community to adhere to the core values of social justice, personal witness to God's saving grace and the vision of a new world.

Today's black leaders have strayed from the prophetic example by entering partisan politics in increasing numbers. They hesitate to criticize the policies of the Bush administration or even the platforms of their own political parties because of the risk of alienation. "Popularity" and "political correctness" have replaced the independence, moral certainty and spiritual integrity of the prophetic tradition, the hallmarks of King's civil rights movement.

King's historic speech and the sermonic power with which he delivered it marked the defining moment of the movement. He was near the end of his written speech when he decided to deviate from it and use the echoing phrase, "I have a dream. . ." Extemporaneously, he integrated quotations from the Declaration of Independence, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and a traditional American patriotic song to convey his vision of a new American society.

King then mesmerized the 250,000 marchers by with images of "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners sit[ting] down together at the table of brotherhood," a society where black children would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," and the unification of "all God's children" regardless of race or creed. He concluded with the hope that all Americans would one day be able to join hands and sing out, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Had King not deviated from his prepared text, it's doubtful that the dramatic phrasing of the speech would be remembered today. But he also used the speech, and his prophetic style of leadership, as a springboard for political change. He urged President Lyndon Johnson to support legislation for integrated public accommodations, voting rights and economic justice. He had already been jailed for his non-violent civil disobedience in pursuit of those goals.

Today's black leaders have lost the independent voice that King so dearly valued and repeatedly used. Their actions raise serious questions about the effectiveness of their leadership. Few black members of Congress, for example, were willing to publicly question Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq to the degree that King challenged Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam.

Similarly, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a leading African-American officeholder, finds himself hostage to the Republican Party. He has compromised his personal integrity in deference to the presidency, an office that King repeatedly criticized in his quest for social justice. Even more disturbing are the opinions of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who opposes affirmative action as well as many other civil rights measures that King himself struggled to achieve.

Even the children of notable movement leaders, such as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, have rejected the prophetic tradition for the rewards of the political arena, which King believed would compromise his integrity as a Christian leader.

The current generation of black leaders have established a pattern of leaving prophetic for political leadership that reflects a troubling break with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Unless current black leaders are willing to draw from the dynamic energy, spiritual integrity and compassion of the prophetic tradition, the black community will seriously diminish its ability to advance the causes it holds so dear.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.