A few weeks ago, I had the privilege (or, at least, initially I thought so) to meet the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He came down to the Georgia State Capitol as a guest of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, which is the largest of any in the nation. There I was, standing five feet away from a man whom I had hitherto seen as a giant within the black prophetic tradition that Dr. Cornel West so often speaks. This tradition has consistently called out the barbarity of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and neoliberal ideals. On this day, I was as excited as a child in a candy store. I grasped his every word on organizing and coalition building, while effectively ignoring his penchant for the respectability rhetoric that has come to define much of the old(er) guard, including a majority of the members who were present in the room. However, as he finished speaking I came to see the man whom Ferguson protesters had run out of town. A man who was unappealing, trite, and impertinent. It was a sad sight and it punctured this view I had of a giant in my community. My takeaway from that 60-minute session was that there seemed to be a dearth of compassion about what happened with regard to our posterity as long as illusions of grandeur were cemented into the collective memory of that day. We needed political power that generated inspiration rather than disappointment, but the latter is all we were afforded.
However, how can our current leaders invest when many are seemingly bankrupt in the vault of leadership? There is a significant number of individuals who seem to have an almost sinister sense of entitlement and are blinded by, what I would contend is simply wanting to have access to the room but not a seat at the table. The type of fighters we need are those who have access to the room, a seat at the table, and will consistently wear the mantle as defender of truth, liberty, and justice for all. The type of fighters we expect are those who will both work for and celebrate transformative progress. However, many of our leaders are blinded by things such as the glossy symbolism of a Black President, but they lack the effort to see past that to generate material and transformative progress. We should not devalue ourselves or those who have come before us to simply celebrate symbols of progress, such as a Black President. However, we should always seek to challenge the status quo and flaws of our nation until the promise of 230 years ago becomes a reality for all. Dr. King eloquently stated that, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” If some of us remain unfree, then none of us are free. In the past few months, I have seen individuals who are more concerned with buffets, banquets, and receptions than doing battle that will protect millions of marginalized people from this latest round of conservative assault. It seems that just maybe they have yet to realize that they too are a part of that single garment of destiny, which has been caught in the inescapable network of mutuality. We see this when our leaders embrace symbolism over material progress, such standing in front of a camera and declaring that black lives and humanity matter, but then in the next breath voting against those same interest of which they had just publicly announced with so much enthusiasm and passion. We need more fighters who reject the symbolism and embrace progress that is palpable.
There is a paucity of black political leadership and we are too enamored with symbolism that we have become afraid to challenge our “heroes.” (I too find myself guilty of this sometimes even as I offer this critique). We shouldn’t just challenge men and women of the lighter hue for the uncivility of their words and actions but also those who look like us. Would we not be better if we not only cheered for Auntie Maxine Waters and her shade and zingers, which we all love but if we actually challenged her and her Congressional Black Caucus colleagues to use their positions of influence to work within the frameworks of this flawed system to effectively perfect our Union? We need more fighters― Not symbolic fighters who offer up zingers and lofty platitudes, but fighters willing to do the hard work of coalition building and freedom fighting. Fighters who aren’t concerned with cameras but rather the body politic.
Later that week after the meeting with Rev. Jackson, I witnessed a Representative, a good ole boy, rise up to the podium and present one of those God awful “Blue Lives Matter” bills, while echoing the statement, “the police are the only thing standing between us and the jungle.” By saying, jungle and presenting this bill we knew to what segment of the population and to whom the Representative was speaking. This would have been a time to fight, to defend the humanity of the segment of the population to which he publicly attacked. This was a time to fight in the arena where battle is done. However, it was much easier for an overwhelming majority of individuals who sat in the room, to call a Press conference and release a press release condemning such hateful speech (after the fact), instead of standing up at that same microphone and calling him out to his face. In addition to a paucity of leadership, there is a paucity of courage. However, even in the midst of the clouds, a rainbow could be found. A freshman Representative Renitta Shannon had the temerity to challenge such idiocy. Then again, it has always been black women who have come to save the day and put their bodies in the direct line of fire when others have lacked the heart to do so. It was shameful that countless members of the largest legislative Black caucus, including my own Representative, sat idly by and allowed such foolishness to take hold. It was in that moment that I almost lost faith. However, Representative Shannon rose from her seat and walked to the front of chamber, with both grace and confidence. She proceeded to give a personal account of her career in law enforcement coupled with facts that had been mysteriously left out by the sponsor of the legislation. Then she spoke truth to power when she stated, “Now I am going to address the elephant in the room on this issue as this bill will primarily affect people who look like me – that is people of color.” We could all feel the palpability of discomfort in the room, but that was a good thing. Representative Shannon had fought for us, she used both her voice and sounding board as a means to speak out against an injustice that too often ignored. Her performance that day was inspiring because it had proven that we did have some fighters and that the future of black leadership was undaunted. It was in your face and would call you out, unapologetically. She used her platform to do what others in her position only normally do in the private comforts of their offices, all while being unaware that the public interest would best be served by them sharing their thoughts in a space where fighters perform: in the ring.
“We need more fighters” is a call that my colleagues have often heard me shout either within the halls of the Georgia State Capitol or on the streets of downtown Atlanta, or while standing in solidarity with brothers and sisters who believe that we as a nation are much better than what we have projected throughout our history. As a young Black man in America, it is not only my duty to stay alive but to actually live and to pay it forward for other brothers of color who come after me by consistently being an encouragement through my words and deeds. However, while this is a concept that most in my generation seem to grasp, I am concerned that the old(er) guard has forgotten how to do this. We need more fighters now more than ever, but more than that, we need our elder statesman to invest in the next generation. A generation of fighters who are willing to work tirelessly for the perfection of this Union in keeping with the tradition of black leadership in the forms of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and all of the countless names that history has not recorded but have lessened the tide of human suffering and added to the sum of its happiness.
I am confident and proud to be a part of such a tradition that has provided a blueprint on how to fight. I have been fighting for quite a few years now from corrupt school boards to incompetent village trustees and mayors. I’ve fought for students’ rights, voter protection and criminal justice reform. Furthermore, my experiences over the past few months have been to consistently issue the clarion call for more fighters while simultaneously standing firm in battle. Moreover, while it may seem we need more fighters and we actually do have them. These fighters are all around us and I was privileged to sit with them and hear their stories and help them fight for their values. They are the teachers who wake up early in the morning to equip young people with what Nelson Mandela called the most powerful weapon that can be used to change the world: education. They are the workers who have banded together to fight for 15. They are the trans men and women who have offered up their bodies for the movement to make this nation aware of the injustices and horrors that they face. These fighters are the lay men and women of forgotten corners and small towns in this nation, whose stories we may not yet know but have provided the almost electric shock day in and day out to keep this nation alive long enough make good on its promised. These are the fighters and we will continue to shake this nation up.