I was eight years old in 1990, the year FBI video footage of Marion Barry, then mayor of our nation’s capital, showed him smoking crack in a hotel room with a woman other than his wife. I felt a deep connection to Washingtonians while listening to reports on the radio on the way to school when the news broke.
I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, a majority Black city chronically plagued with its own set of political and legal controversies. Barry, arguably the first notable civil rights era activist to assume leadership in political office of a major U.S. city, represented what’s possible in Black communities. Barry’s, and other Black leaders’, rise to power following the Black Power Movement of the late 60’s and ‘70s symbolized an attainment of some wins, including political power. Black people continued rooting for Barry despite his conviction for cocaine possession. He served six months in prison, but after his prison release he regained the support of his constituency and was elected again as mayor in D.C. in 1994.
More than a decade later, following Barry’s fall and return to glory, my hometown, Newark was inflicted by high rates of homelessness, poverty and crime. Then mayor, Sharpe James, the former State Senator and second Black political leader elected as mayor in the city, was convicted and incarcerated for fraud and underselling city owned land to his mistress in 2008. By the time of James’ conviction, unwavering support of Black political leaders in cities across the country waned.
Black people appeared to be exhausted by the letdowns—exhausted because sometimes we have exalted Black leaders who would do more harm than good and leap off of their pedestals shortly after their arrival.
The Black public’s inclination to support or defend Black political leaders had given way to disenchantment that seemed to persist up until the present. Black people appeared to be exhausted by the letdowns—exhausted because sometimes we have exalted Black leaders who would do more harm than good and leap off of their pedestals shortly after their arrival.
The recent wins of a new class of “progressive” Black Mayors like Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson Mississippi, LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, Keisha Bottoms of Atlanta and Ras Baraka of Newark, however, may be an indication that the pendulum has shifted in the direction of optimism. In this moment, I’m compelled to think about what the real possibilities and challenges are for these mayors and Black communities.
Black Leadership in the Age of 45
Wide-scale progressive political action is seemingly under threat as the Trump administration continues to strip away basic provisions. The successful elections of trans, women, persons of color into various offices on November 7th, however, suggest we may be on another path altogether.
The subsequent wins of Black women like Latoya Cantrell, a community organizer and Keisha Bottoms, city council veteran both elected in major cities, also affirms a break in convention. Both women fought hard races defeating more conservative opposition and for this we should all be seriously hopeful.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba stands out as an example of this deviation from the political norm. A self-described revolutionary, Lumumba decided to run for mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s most populated city, after his father unexpectedly died in office. He ran on a fearlessly progressive agenda that disavowed the post-racial and post-partisan themes many Black leaders who have entered politics after the civil rights era embraced. Instead, Lumumba won by promising a radical political agenda merging his father’s legacy, which included healthy business development and job creation, along with developing opportunities for citizens to lead in decisions regarding the city budget.
The latter is an example of a progressive process that activists across the nation are fighting for in their own cities called “participatory budgeting.” In Jackson, Lumumba’s father developed a plan based on this process called the Jackson-Kush Plan and Chokwe intends to implement it. The question remains: Can these new leaders achieve their goals when the current POTUS, and his administration, is hell bent on rolling back progressive gains?
Black Political Leaders Are Not Immune To The Problems of Structural Oppression
After Marion Barry served his time and worked his way back into city hall, many white people could not understand how he had regained the trust of some in the Black community. For many Black people living in D.C. and beyond, though, it was clear. Barry’s struggles with addiction did not equal criminality or a lack of commitment to the Black political struggle.
A report by Frontline details that in 1979 the United States experienced a peak in drug use directly impacting almost 25 million residents, including many people of color. Black people understood that the issues impacting our communities were also affecting our leadership. This sense of interrelatedness continues to be present in Black communal dialogue.
“[T]hese new leaders cannot do the work alone, and should they try, it is the community’s job to hold them accountable.”
During her acceptance speech, Atlanta’s new mayor, Keshia Bottoms eloquently stated, “For all the little girls out there, who need somebody to believe that you’re better than your circumstances, I want you all to remember that Black Girl Magic is real,” No truth is more real than this.
The present circumstances of any one person should never be used as a predictor for the future, but our collective circumstances can impact the future plight of Black leadership. In other words, these new leaders cannot do the work alone, and should they try, it is the community’s job to hold them accountable.
The ability of this new class of Black mayors to create magic will depend on the collective abilities of their supporters. It will also require a willingness on the part of leaders to listen to the people. Residents must support newly elected officials by participating in visioning processes, advising on policy, supporting the allies of these mayors when they run for office and making financial contributions.. This won’t be a challenge when community members are invited to join the process.
So What Are We Gonna Do?
It’s worth repeating: We need to hold Black leadership accountable for results.
As we reengage Black political leadership in a hostile political environment our success will be shaped by our willingness to hold Black leadership responsible for implementing the visions and policies we want them to actualize. In return for Black communal support provided to them, they must work.
The return for our support looks like ensuring our elected officials create policies and legislation that advances healing in our communities, as well as, policies that transform the systems that continue to wreak havoc in Black spaces. The politicians mentioned throughout this piece campaigned on promises for reforms in criminal justice, health and education. Progressive candidates like Lumumba advocated for participatory budgets. These are the changes we should expect to see in the next few years.
The success of newly elected Black mayors hinges on our ability to support our leadership as they build toward a progressive, Black-loving future, in which representation (namely, one’s blackness) alone will not be enough to secure a people’s vote. We need leaders whose politics are grounded in a radical commitment to Black liberation, and should Black leaders not demonstrate such a commitment, we must push them forward or push them out.
Bryan Epps, a Newark native, is an innovative community and institution builder.