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Volume 8, Number 2

Fall/Winter 2010

Some Observations about Leaders in the Black Community*


Joseph S. Himes
Founding President, North Carolina Sociological Association

    When one speaks of leaders in the American black urban community, he is usually thinking of persons in the front of the struggle or movement for civil rights and social justice.  He is not likely to be thinking of leaders in the arts, sciences, athletics, education, entertainment and so on.  However, such people sometimes exercise leadership in the spheres of civil rights and socio-economic conditions.  Insofar as this is true, such persons are leaders in the sense of this discussion.  In this paper I refer to leaders in these specialized fields in the latter part of the discussion.

    I should mention a second qualification of this paper.  It makes no claim to report empirical findings produced by scientific research.  It is rather a line of argument, a point of view, a personal hypothesis.  The aim of this paper is to stimulate and focus discussion at a professional roundtable meeting.

    In the present discussion, leadership is regarded as one component in a pragmatic action syndrome of which definition of social problems and character of implementing organizations are the others.  This syndrome constitutes a dependent variable in situations where ecological change, varying population composition, shifting power distribution, nature of political organization, economic development and the like are independent variables.  Using this approach, it is possible to identify and describe several models of leadership that have emerged in the black community.

Traditional Model

    During the end of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries black people tended to perceive their problems as inclusive, an undifferentiated mass of misfortunes.  They felt so overwhelmed by their troubles and so incapable of altering the situation that they did not differentiate limitations of education from their economic, housing and other adversities.  Insofar as they could act, members of the black community struggled against all these handicaps as a unitary problem.

    In this situation, churches, lodges and religious followings were natural implementing organizations for collective action.  They were deeply rooted in the black community, empowered from indigenous community sources and equipped with the best community leadership.  All three organizations had a strong moral orientation toward service and collective advocacy.  In addition, these organizations were advantageously situated to intervene and mediate between the black community and the white power structure.

    This mode of problem definition and implementing organization crucially influenced action leadership in the black community.  Typically, ministers and heads of lodges took leadership in community activities.  Some other blacks were empowered as leaders by the white community.  These included such persons as school principals, head waiters in the big hotels and barbers in shops that catered to a white clientele.

    These leaders functioned in various ways to advance the social cause of the black community.  Ministers and lodge dignitaries often had the ear of white officials because of their following in the black community.  School principals, head waiters and barbers were useful because they were trusted and controlled by the white community.  They were also communication links and mediators between the two communities, reporting to the whites what was going on in the black community and transmitting to the black community what the white power structure had decided for it.  In this paternalistic pattern of leadership submission and reciprocity, the black leaders were able to defend their constituents and overtime to generate small increments of improvement in the rules of race relations.

General Function Model

    Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, urban blacks began establishing general-function organizations to attack and deal with their problems.  Although these organizations tended to work in a different way from the traditional groups mentioned above, they defined the problems of the community in general and inclusive terms.  They differed in style of operation, the issue on which they focused and in ideological framework.  However, they tended to be traditional in the way they perceived and defined the problems of the black community.  One major difference between these organizations and those discussed above is the fact that problem-solving and social change became major organizational functions.

    The general-function organizations, unlike their problem definitions, differed significantly from the traditional action organizations discussed above.  They were established for the purpose of problem-solving and change-promotion.  Although such organizations fulfilled various ancillary social functions, these were unintended and often unrecognized.  As instrumental collectivities, such organizations tended to be formal and idealogy-based.  As a consequence therefore, action was controlled and guided by rational considerations.  As such, these general-function organizations were modern advocacy agencies or social movements.

    One of the first such organizations was the National Negro Business League, established by Booker T. Washington in 1900.  In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois formalized the Niagara Movement of 1907 as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The National Urban League was produced by merging three organizations and launched in 1911 with Eugene Kinckle Jones as its first executive head.  In 1914 Marcus Garvey formed the United Negro Improvement Association and projected it into a national operation.  A. Philip Randolph established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids in 1925.  All of these were national organizations with chapters or units at state and local levels.  Bishops and other major church officials, outstanding journalists, college presidents and heads of large business firms also play this leadership role segmentally.

    The conditions of race relations in the late 1950s and 1960s produced another type of general-function leader.  They emerged from the protest movement that began with the school desegregation decision of 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.  Although they perceived the problems of race relations as general and inclusive, they recognized the racist social structure, rather than prejudice as the central variable.  Both the leaders and their implementing organizations differed significantly from those of the earlier general-function period.  Being concerned with collective remedial action, such leaders needed greater education and better social action skills than their traditional antecedents.  These new leaders tended to become specialists in collective efficacy efforts.  They were less bound by obligations to the paternalistic white power leaders and supported by new power resources in the black community. Familiar illustrations include Whitney Young, Martin Luther King, James Farmer, James Foreman and Stokely Carmichael, among others.

    A second subtype of general function organization became evident in the same years.  Typical organizations included the revived Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCIC), organized by Martin Luther King.  This new type of organization differed from earlier models in terms of ideology, strategy, and tactics.  These well known national groups had local units and were supported by independent local organizations of the same type.

    Though occupied with a broad range of problems, these organizations were distinguished by major concern with the rules and structures of race relations in the United States.  All, both national and local, attacked the racial norms which defined and sustained the racist structure of the society.  Organizations and leaders were committed to the conviction that the society must be open and blacks must enjoy full civil rights and social justice.  Their attack was explicit, overt and direct.  They utilized the black population, particularly the black “masses” as prime instruments in the struggle for the collective goals of the community.  Until the middle 1960s these organizations limited themselves to nonviolent tactics of traditional and novel character.

Technical Model

    Race relations in the United States changed notably in the early 1970s.  This change resulted mainly from actions taken by the Supreme Court and the Congress.  These actions reaffirmed the guarantee of constitutional civil rights to all citizens.  Further, they handed down decisions and enacted laws that required all citizens to behave in ways that would actualize the civil rights of blacks and other minority groups.  These actions include, among others, the Supreme Court Decision of 1954 banning school segregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Education Act of 1973.  Through these actions, blacks achieved the major goals of their struggle.

    These events compelled blacks to redefine the problems that they faced.  The issue now became execution and enforcement of the judicial and legislative actions.  For example, the Supreme Court Decision prohibited segregation of school children by race and color.  The problem thereafter was how to embody this mandate in the structure and operations of schools and school districts.  Or again, the Civil Rights Act interdicted discrimination in the hiring, promotion and payment of workers because of their race or color.  Equal employment practices and affirmative action were instituted to enforce this new rule.  But what specific actions should be taken: Establishment of employment quotas, special opportunities for blacks who had suffered discrimination for so long, or something else?

    Redefining the problem had two consequences for collective action.  

    First, it dispersed action to all those places where application of these rules occurred.  That is, the problem existed or occurred in every place where education, hiring and promotion, voting, housing and the like took place.  It thus could not be attacked solely by a centralized organization from its headquarters location.  At the same time, execution or enforcement of the new rules was also amenable to control or manipulation at all levels of government and social organization.  The operable venue of monolithic national organizations was therefore seriously limited.

    Second, redefinition of problems and preemption of basic actions by the federal government affected both the type and methods of implementing organizations.  Since the new rules of race relations were laws, they could be enforced only by legal instrumentalities.  Government administrators and civil service employees thus became important agents in realizing the goals of blacks.  Private organizations like those discussed in the foregoing sections were restricted to prodding and activating the government to execute and enforce its laws.  Perception of this fact did not lead to decline or decay of the private organizations.  They simply reoriented their action strategies and tactics and continued to perform a significant and unique service.

    The organizations that implement on the problems of civil rights and social justice present a new look.  The most important ones are parts of the federal government.  At the top level they are the courts and the Congress.  All of the federal laws are interpreted and Constitutionally evaluated by the courts which issue mandates for compliance and action.  Thus for example, when a school district decides to bus children to apply the 1954 Supreme Court Decision, a lower court may review that action and ultimately refer the matter to the Supreme Court for final decision.  In normal operations, the Department of Education (or other federal agencies) will pass the policy down to state and local operating units to translate into daily behavior of faculties and students.

    The President and his Department may alter the interpretation of one or another of these judgments or acts.  This may be settled by action of the Supreme Court.  On the other hand, if the Supreme Court does not settle the matter, the Congress may pass correcting legislation designed to enforce its interpretation of its earlier action.  In addition, the Congress may pass new legislation to extend existing laws to situations not envisaged in the original act.

    The second level of execution and enforcement is the Executive Departments and other administrative units of federal government.  These units simply perform their original duty, i.e., enforce laws that fall within their jurisdiction.  Any department or unit also has access to various devices for enforcing laws.  All can request the Attorney General to utilize the courts in the process of law enforcement.  In other words, every executive and administrative unit of the federal government is an ally of blacks and other minorities in the struggle for civil rights and social justice.

    Further, all the states are engaged in various ways in the struggle of blacks for civil rights and social justice.  On the one hand, they execute at the state level federal programs of many kinds, and thus are law-enforcing agents of the federal government.  On the other hand, all states have their own civil rights and social justice laws of one kind of another.  In the execution of these laws they participate in the struggle of blacks for rights and justice.

    Many divisions or sections of government maintain special subunits to oversee and manage internal and external race relations.  These include equal opportunity, affirmative action and human relations committees or the like.  They are charged with the responsibility of guaranteeing that all parts of the unit adhere to the legislative rules.  Many cities and states provide this service to constituent organizations, business firms and citizens.  These organizations have a governmental status but offer their services as a “friend of the community” to constituent groups and individuals.

    Last, but not least, implementation of race relations and struggle under terms of the new federal legislation is supported by private organizations of many kinds.  The traditional, i.e., church, fraternal, and other bodies, and general function, advocacy and social movement organizations continued out of the past into the present situation of race relations.  Much of their activity in the past focused on persuading and pressuring government to change the rules of race relations.  These private organizations continue to pressure government to amend and pass laws as needed.  In addition, though, a major focus of their effort is now designed to stimulate government to execute and enforce the laws that are already on the books.  The national organizations, e.g., NAACP and Urban League, lobby Congress in favor of needed corrections of existing laws and new legislation to cover issues not now covered.  Informal and formal Committees of the Congress, e.g., the black Congressional Caucus and the House Education Committee, press for legislative correction.  At the other end of the political structure, local branches of these national organizations along with independent local organizations lobby Congressmen in their districts on behalf of the same changes.

    The change of implementation of the struggle is as dramatic and non-traditional as the change of the legal rules of the game of race relations.  In this way, leadership in the black urban community has changed notably.  There is, as a consequence of the changes alluded to, a substantial net gain of implementing social equipment to carry on the struggle.

    Leadership in the black urban community has responded to these changes of both the race relations situation and the alteration of problem definition and action implementation.  Traditional and general-function leadership, though better trained and more sophisticated, has remained an important part of the cadre.  Change in leadership consists, for the most part, of addition of an entire new category of actors.  These new leaders are non-ideological, government connected, and technically trained for their jobs.

    Most of the new category of government-connected leaders, except perhaps elected governmental officials, are civil service employees.  They are not leaders by inspiration or by commitment to a movement.  Many of them are not even black; they are job holders, performing an assigned task.  However, they are leaders because they take initiatives, carry out actions, seek to achieve ends that benefit blacks by actualizing some civil right and achieving some incremental social justice.


    The social movements and social legislation of the 1950s and 1960s have transferred the problems, efforts and achievement of blacks from the social to political arena.  The social and legal rules, not racial prejudice have emerged as the problem.  Action through social movements and political parties has become the mode of problem solving.  Achievement is denoted as confirmation and enforcement of civil rights not the elimination of prejudice.  The first conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing analysis is that the whole syndrome of problem, implementation of action and achievement is now largely a political phenomenon.

    A second conclusion would seem to be that if the gains in civil rights and social justice are to be maintained and enlarged, government will continue to be major leader and actor.  This judgment means that leadership in the black community is no longer an exclusive right and responsibility of black organizations and persons.  To stay in the business of leadership in the black community, black organizations and would-be leaders must work in coalitions with nonblack organizations and leading persons.  It also means that the black citizenry must work in ways that translate their efforts into political power.  Pressure and ballots must be used in place of bombast, petition and parades.

    If this problem-action-achievement scenario is correct, the significant black leaders of the future will be successful candidates for office and influential participants in party organizations and processes.  They must also be successful activists who mobilize potential black power as registered voters, actual voters at elections, and controllers of blocs of established and new black voters.

    It seems to me that one final conclusion is indicated by the preceding discussion.  There may always be a place for the old-style leaders and organizations to play watchdog and mobilize pressure on the government apparatus.  Organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League and Jesse Jackson's PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) are well adapted for this kind of action.  Such organizations can bring many people not regularly involved in party activities into the effort to strengthen civil rights and social justice.

*Editorial Note: The observations by Professor Himes were prepared in 1985 and are quite similar to a Presidential Address at the North Carolina Sociological Association.  Sociation Today would like to thank Leslie Hurt for providing the research in the Himes' library for location of this previously unpublished paper, and to Austin Ashe for preparing the Word document from a typed page.

 Return to Sociation Today Fall/Winter 2010

©2010 by the North Carolina Sociological Association