Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Crisis in Black Leadership

BOND: In this book, Race Matters, Cornel West writes about the crisis of leadership. And he says, "The crisis is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle." Do you see this crisis today? Do you agree with West's definition of what the crisis is?

FLAKE: Not totally. Not totally. Because you have too many different new models that are emerging. When you look at the church model, if you look at the recent edition of Ebony magazine, these mega-churches and what they are doing in community, if you look at the names I gave before in terms of those that are projected in the corporate structure, if you look all around, you see African American leadership emerging in ways that I think are definitely connected. Now, I think from -- not from the leadership perspective, what we have to do is try to find a way to make sure that those who have been the recipients of the sacrifices of the movement understand that they too have a connection. Not bring them to a place where they view everything racially. But at least they have a sense of the history of what got them to the places where they are in the times when I could not have gone to the University of Houston or to many of the other major institutions by the time I entered in college in '62 and that post '65, how all of those doors have opened for them, and how valuable it is for them to be able to now have the freedom of the choice of where they go. And I think in a case like -- I think one reason these churches are demonstrating that power is they are in the places where the people are that Cornel is talking about in Race Matters. The connection is there. And the -- as people are coming into those environments, they are seeing that you don't have to be less than who you are to become greater. But, in fact, you can be the essence of -- you can define yourself in terms of how you see yourself in past, how you see yourself in the present. But then have a vision about what you can do in the future to make a contribution where you may not even live in that community, but in any community you are a part of, you demonstrate some measure of excellence where people don't just see you based on your color, but really begin to deal with what Martin would call content of character.

BOND: If you're promoting a model of economic empowerment and growth and strength, how do you get people to understand that and not to forego social improvement, but to place these in the perspective that you want.

FLAKE: Yeah, I think that the reality is that -- I mean, the operative word that you gave is "perspective." And I think what we have done in too many instances is allow the social-political to be the guiding light rather than putting it in a perspective where there is a balance as it relates to education and economics. As you know, before if you look at what happened from the Richard Allen era up until about '62, '65 that -- that was an era where no matter what kind of background a family had, that child was expected to be among the first, as in my case, to go onto college and get a degree. The next -- there was always the feeling that the next generation will be an educated generation. And that that generation, now with the key that opens up the door to the possibility of being able to have access to the kind of economics that would allow for future generations to build on a legacy, as opposed to just generation after generation, almost starting all over.

I think that model that I talk about is one that does not absent a role for the social-political, but deals with the reality that now we have a plethora of African American leaders in elected capacities. And so our focus can't be exclusively political. And if it is political, even that has to require some rearrangement dealing with the new populations that have become a part of this nation and dealing with the reality that it is difficult anymore in many instances to define who is Republican, who is Democrat. So that we have to reduce them from capital -- from having made them capital letters, to small-case letters, so that we can then begin to move across the land and interface in ways that we don't deal merely in politics, but we deal in power. Our reality must become one that power comes not merely from definitions of attachment to other people, but also comes when we have something to bring to the table that says "I'm your equal. And I'm not coming here to beg for something. I'm not coming here to become your dependent. I'm coming here because I have something to offer," as I did when we built this new cathedral which was a $23 million church.

When I went to Walter Ship [Walter Shipley] at the bank who was Chairman of Chase Bank, what I said to him is, "I'm grateful for the $2,000 and $2,500 grants you give my church. But if I have the choice of taking those small grants and a $15 million loan, I need a $15 million loan which I am willing to repay. I'm not coming here to beg for anything. I'm coming because I have developed a system. That system has outgrown its model. And I need your assistance to treat me like you would any other small business." And his response was, "We will find a way to make the loan." And that's what I'm talking about. You don't just go in viewed as almost a welfare recipient, even in the places of power. But you go in and say, "I am your equal. And I want you to treat me as an equal." And you can do that if you have the proper education and if you come in standing on an economic ground. As I tell in a lot of my speeches, I tell people, "You don't buy a car without a down payment. You don't buy a home without a down payment." I never go to get resources without saying, "I have mine. And what I want you to do is help me to leverage mine. So that I can be able to do more than I can do with the limited resources I have."