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September 1, 2014, 10:24 pm

Black politics and the state of our leaders

The Black community and children in Philadelphia are once again the casualties of political war.

The Fact Finding Report to Mayor Michael A. Nutter Concerning Charter Operator Selection Process of the Martin Luther King School released last Thursday unveiled another tragic story of discord and power plays amongst Black leaders and politicians. 

Sadly, buried under the mountain of political debris are the futures of our children and community. As a pastor and father, my heart is grieved by the political fighting and infighting. Now, more than ever, our community is in desperate need of courageous, selfless leaders solely focused on the best interests of our great City.

The report by Joan Markman is not just disconcerting because of her conclusions. Most disturbing is the continuing revelation that some of the most powerful Black leaders in Philadelphia simply could not find a way to work together, not even for the betterment of the impoverished and politically inept.

Do you mean to tell me that when only sixty-three percent of our children are graduating from high school and much fewer matriculate into college that we can’t put aside political discord and take action that is in their best interest? When thirty-one percent of African Americans in Philadelphia are living in poverty, we can’t trust our leaders to forego political vengeance and instead coalesce around a promising vision? To say the least, we are in serious trouble in Philadelphia.

Machtpolitik, or “power politics,” is how twentieth century international scholar, Martin Wight, would have labeled this latest fiasco. Power politics occurs when those in power seek to protect their own interests by threatening another with military, economic, or political aggression. “Power tends to corrupt,” Sir John Dalberg-Acton contended, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

While we will never completely know the full story of who was involved in the MLK High School debacle, one has to ask some critical questions. What was the machtpolitik in the MLK school debate? Why did the Markman report only surface after the superintendent was released and three days after the SRC chair resigned? What is really occurring, given this is a mayoral election year and November 1st is less than six weeks away?

The Markman Inquiry clearly is being utilized as a political apparatus and cannot be viewed as completely objective. The report, at best, reveals instances of poor judgment and, perhaps, meetings and conversations that should not have been had. However, it neither uncovers any illegalities nor provides remedies to improve the quality of education or the quality of life for the citizens of Philadelphia. Ultimately, the report engages in character assassination of Black leaders and political repositioning while many in our community continue to be disenfranchised, uneducated, and unemployed.

So where do the unfortunate and tragic events of 2011 leave Blacks in Philadelphia? Where do we go from here when our Harvard-trained, pro-parent superintendent is gone, a distinguished corporate lawyer’s reputation is tarnished, a politically-powerful legislator is sullied, the only Black, female lobbyist in Philadelphia is implicated and the judgment/competence of a promising interim superintendent is questioned?

“To be a poor man is hard,” said W.E.B. DuBois, “but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

Beloved, to be a “poor race” and at “the very bottom of hardships” is unacceptable. While we throw darts at one another, the larger community manages to hold onto multi-million dollar contracts. Are Archie and Evans “godfathers,” or could they be the smoke screen for the City’s “true godfathers” who have benefited for years off the backs of Philadelphia’s taxpayers and the masses of poor Black and Brown children whose large numbers provide a great profit for many interested parties? In sum, it is not about a $50 million five-year contract, a strong-willed Black woman, or even our undereducated and continually underserved children — it is about control of a $3 billion school district budget.

Yes, the crisis of Black leadership in Philadelphia is a moral issue and a responsibility. Most of our wounds are self-inflicted. If we continue on this trajectory, we will become, as DuBois prophetically warned us, “like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged [our] brightness.”

To be quite honest, we, as parents, citizens and community-minded people, must expect more from our leaders. We realize they will inevitably disagree, but their disagreements should never rise above the interests of the community or stymie our collective advancement or progress. Whatever the reasons for this most recent family feud, it must cease and cease immediately.

Clearly there has been a misuse of power. In the past, Black people have not always had power to determine their destiny. Today we do.

In a city where the leadership ranks include a Black mayor, Black district attorney, Black police chief, Black fire chief, Black majority leader of City Council and, until recently, a Black SRC chair, school superintendent, and chair of Appropriations of the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives, we have the wherewithal to do better to yield better results for our community. We can no longer afford to get bogged down in territorial warfare. When we do, we all lose.

We need our Black leaders to put aside their differences and work together. Black families in Philadelphia are in the wilderness. Lives are at stake, futures are on hold, dreams are deferred and our children and community are failing because we are failing them.

If Blacks are ever to reach their full potential in Philadelphia and our great country, then we must understand and adhere to Dr. King’s call for unity: “…somehow, and in some way…We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish together as fools.”

As always, let’s keep the faith and remember “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”


Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is the senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.