The Failure of Negro Leadership

TR and Booker

by Benjamin Woods

The crisis of Black American leadership is rooted in 1830s and 1840s political strategies designed to convince whites of Black people’s “humanity and worthiness” – an elitist approach that cut the masses of Blacks out of the picture. In 1920 Harlem radical Hubert Harrison referred to the NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.”


The Failure of Negro Leadership

by Benjamin Woods

This article originally appeared on Mr. Woods’ web site, FreeTheLand.

These leaders began to appeal to the liberal values of the U.S. founding documents and ‘moral uplift.’”

The New York Times printed a revealing article on February 13, 2010 titled “In Black Caucus, A Fund-Raising Powerhouse.” The article discusses the large donations the Congressional Black Caucus receives from corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals. Moreover, it demonstrates the ongoing intergenerational failure of negro leadership in the United States.

I assert there are three crucial periods in African leadership: 1) the emergence of a “free” northern based leadership in the early 19th century 2) the white appointment of Booker T. Washington as the leader of African America in the late 19th century and 3) the cooptation and incorporation of negro politicians in the post-Black Power era. This essay uses a theoretical framework of domestic colonialism. According to this theory, within a colonized nation, such as Africans in the United States, a portion of the indigenous colonized population is recruited to collaborate with the imperial power.

At the turn 19th century, a free primarily middle class northern African leadership emerged in the United States. At the same time, a new debate among African leaders developed concerning the identity and direction of the African community in the U.S. Unlike previous periods of the movement which advanced militant resistance such as maroons, insurrections, and emigration these leaders began to appeal to the liberal values of the U.S. founding documents and “moral uplift.” Dr. Leslie Alexander, who examines this issue in her book, African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, recently stated on Jazz and Justice radio:

Black leadership in the 1830s and 1840s embraced a particular political strategy known as moral uplift…which states the way for Black people to gain freedom justice equality citizenship etc. is to present to white society the best possible face of the Black community to convince white people of their humanity and worthiness.”

A few decades later, Booker T. Washington echoed these statements preaching a doctrine of political passivity, moral uplift, and industrial education. Schools that taught industrial education such as Tuskegee Institute were funded by the leading Northern industrialists such as the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt for the explicit purpose of producing a conservative negro leadership class.

Booker T. Washington preached a doctrine of political passivity, moral uplift, and industrial education.”

By the late 1960s and 1970s, African leadership in the U.S. boldly moved in the direction of Black Nationalism, Pan Africanism, and Socialism. Unfortunately, due to their uncompromising stance several visionary leaders were assassinated, imprisoned, and forced into exile by the F.B.I.‘s COINTELPRO. During this same period, philanthropic foundations such as the Ford Foundation under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy financed a moderate to conservative negro leadership.

Today, the result are negro leaders such as President Barack Obama and Mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington D.C. Obama received $745 million in campaign financing, more than any other candidate for U.S. President in history. Although he is virtually silent in response to state terrorism against Africans (ex: police brutality), Obama is vocal in the defense of racist Zionist Israel who murders known pacifists delivering aid to poor, colonized people in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, Fenty, who raised $3.9 million as of March for his upcoming mayoral race, breaking his own campaign donation record, promotes privatization of schools (charters) and homeless shelters in the U.S. capitol. Privatization has been shown to assist elites, who financed his campaign, to accumulate more capital.

Obama is virtually silent in response to state terrorism against Africans.”

The utter failure of negro leadership in the U.S. not only affects political leadership but also African America’s most revered civil rights organizations. Although the NAACP was primarily started by white liberal jews and, at one point, was used to watch “negro dissidents“ by the U.S. government during World War I, it is known more for its numerous civil rights victories.

Today they collaborate with companies such as Wells Fargo that target Africans in the U.S. for unaffordable home loans thereby causing one of the single biggest loses of wealth in the African community’s history due to home foreclosures.  For example, although the NAACP initially sued the lending company for targeting African borrowers, they later dropped the lawsuit and made Wells Fargo a lead sponsor for their 101st national convention in July of this year. For this and other reasons, in 1920 Harlem radical Hubert Harrison referred to the organization as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.

Several scholars such as Jacob Caruthers, Cedric Robinson, and Sterling Stuckey have discussed the intergenerational failure of negro leaders. However, the U.N.I.A. in the 1920s and the Black Power Movement were periods when Africans had an ideologically and financially independent leadership. In the 21st century the African Freedom Movement must adopt three principles espoused by the esteemed African freedom fighter Ella Baker: 1) working class leadership 2) youth leadership and 3) participatory democracy. These three principles can help us to overcome our current crisis of negro leadership and move in the direction of national liberation and self determination.

Benjamin Woods can be contacted at [email protected].


Alexander, Leslie. (2008) African or American: Black Identity and Activism in New York City, 1784-1861. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Allen, Robert. (1992) Black Awakening in Capitalist America. Trenton, NJ: African World Press.

Lipton Eric & Lichtblau, Eric. “In Black Caucus, a Fund-Raising Powerhouse.” New York Times. Febryary 13, 2010.

Ransby, Barbara. (2005) Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Robinson, Cedric. (1997) Black Movements in America. New York: Routledge.

Stewart, Nikita. “D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty surpasses 2006 fundraising record.” Friday March 12, 2010.

Stuckey, Sterling. (1987) Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Watkins, William. (2001) The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. New York: Teachers College Press. 



Current Black leadership is a toothless paper tiger. Un-appointed big mouths such as Al Sharpton offer nothing but ways to complain while servile intellectuals such as Obama offer only a diversion. I believe that the only way for African people to ever make significant strides in protecting ourselves and markets is by fighting the "white supremacist" machine head on to the side and within. However, cowardice is now seen as a virtue especially in the African American community……We as a collective; the world over are paying for the sins of our forefathers.


Free the Land!

I can find nothing to disagree with in the analysis or political proposals of Benjamin Woods. The negro leadership is dead on arrival. The only way to advance the goals of Revolutionary Black Nationalism is for the New Afrikan working class to take leadership of the movement. Socialism or Death!


I agree with B. Woods 100%, you said it all in a short and to the point piece.  Your right Polemical

The "Third Rail" of Early 20th Century Black Leadership

I noticed the minor mention of Marcus Mosiah Garvey. An 11 million-strong United Negro Improvement Association doesn't represent a real leadership success? I'm sick of hearing of Washington, DuBois, Washington, DuBois, while at the same time "Mr. Bootstraps" and "Boujie Negro #1" were "debating" Garvey was uplifting minds, hearts, and bodies to look BACK TO AFRIKA!!!!!

Back to [New] Afrika!

He didn’t refer at all to “boujie Negro #1” or his debate with “boot straps” but he mentioned one of the most important lessons we can take from Garvey and that is “ideologically and financially independent leadership. “ Garvey did achieve the most major organizational success in our history and he did it by appealing to the latent nationalism that is inside the head of most of our people and by appealing not to the boujies or the bootstraps but to the Afrikan working class. The question is how do we repeat that when most existing Afrikan organizations are afraid of or ambivalent toward Black Nationalism?

@ woods and others

I don’t know why some feel urged to impose Obama onto the rich and effective (some less so, purely politically speaking) historical landscape of Black leaders, when he is, has not been in any such way, shape or form a leader of anyone, let alone African Americans? He’s a politician selected for a specific American agenda, and it ain’t the Black, Red or Brown one. So, by labelling him along with it as miss leadership only incorrectly designates what his purpose as our new president is and it confuses the issue of who and where we need to look to for that leadership. And the culling from the history books of the names of Black Nationalist Organizers as representing an approved of and more appropriate/accepted concept of Black leadership is, in its own unique way, likewise as misguided and confusing to those who have seen and continue to see and understand Black political freedom in the United States as being contingent upon nothing less than the acquisition of substantial amounts of political power with in the nation and its deftly imperfect political framework that we helped to create and not someplace else; and also not separated and isolated from so called white American society, a society that, in great ways owes its world wide appeal to the African American sensibility, as well as that of the Native American. And if we want an example of the effects of social, cultural and financial separation/isolation from the main land if you will; we need only to look at the state of the Native American at this time.

My father once remarked, with great sadness and frustration, that he resented the fact that he had to resort to a kind of Black Nationalism in order to establish a satisfactory means by witch he could assuage himself of the fact of not being able to confidently form and embrace a National identity in his own country. Not because he and millions others didn’t want to, for after all, it is our country, but because white American Power brokers have and continue in many covert ways to through political/psychological games deny our people that feeling of being able to themselves at home. Although I understand the psychological benefits of adopting a Nationalist philosophy, I view it as a supremely lesser substitute and an ultimately useless strategy (except to those in power whose power is created and perpetually thrives on  the separation of not only so called whites and black, but the separation of Blacks from each other in regards to finding real, politically workable solutions) towards the establishment of universal African American political leadership.


Marcus Garvey was denounced by the leading Black intellectuals of his time like E.B.Dubois, Alain Locke and B.T. Washington not because they were anti Black self- consciousness and self-determination and power. On the contrary, and in spite of their differing views on how to attain it, they committed their life’s work to that very cause. What they rejected, along with dwelling on the negative pathologies of black life to buttress their choice of political activism, was the idea that African Americans needed to relinquish their three hundred year history and  contribution to creating this country into what it had and could further become for someplace in Africa. That someplace in Africa, it might be added, no doubt would require that what ever European nation held it as a colony, would be give it to the back to Africa constituency in order for them to realize that misguided and misplaced dream. And the establishment and subsequent history of Liberiagives us another example of the tragic irony that results from such an endeavour as that. The idea of Integration into all areas the United Statesby African Americans is not a sell out, nor is it a relinquishing of our national/cultural/ethnic identity (that would apply more to the situation facing the Native Americans). It is a recognition ofthe desires of many to embrace that identity in all of its mind boggling complexity that, when tripped of all of the political scheme’s of deterrent that have created more ways of showing and deceiving us into believing that our differences out way our similarities, while maintaining and keeping intact our diverse ethnic sensibilities, can open our (the whole nation) eyes to how simple and necessary for all of us, the solution really is.Therefore, by embracing an ideology in favour of separation here or elsewhere is, in principal, accepting political defeat and works to only compound the fractures among ourselves already in place that enable a united movement for political freedom and equality. 

Frederick Douglass (it reaches further back); B.T. Washington; E.B. Dubois; Dr. King and Bayard Rustin to name a prominent handful were not perfect and their ideas of freedom for African Americans were not always torn from the same philosophical cloth. But, each one of them in their own idiosyncratic way, paved a path for and presented Black people with a sense of  confidence and hope, fuelled by action, that propelled generations toward African American self-determination that would and continues to demand full integration in our lopsided nation to help set it right side up for once. I doubt if that can be said of those Nationalist leaders who have and do espouse separation as a means of achieving more freedom? And the below sentence from woods’ article echoes (unconsciously) that doubt; for what is missing in that equation is that of a precise, workable political goal.

“Several scholars such as Jacob Caruthers, Cedric Robinson, and SterlingStuckey have discussed the intergenerational failure of negro leaders. However, the U.N.I.A. in the 1920s and the Black Power Movement were periods when Africans had an ideologically and financially independent leadership.”

And What, I must ask, have any of these scholars achieved for the political freedom and equality for African Americans that comes any where close to matching those of whom Woods and others like to assert and or condemn as failed leadership? If what these leaders accomplished in their life times for the benefit of not only African Americans, but by association all Americans, can be viewed as failure, then maybe some one could explain to me how it has come to pass that we have African American scholars and professional intellectuals capable and willing to make such arguments in the first place?

They have laid an indisputable foundation that was built from more than polemical ideology, a cottage industry (there’s no such thing as financial independence) or what ever label we want to use to name ourselves. What can we do with that legacy?


Members of "The Talented Tenth" also called Marcus Garvey a ape and assisted the government in its efforts to keep educated Black people away from Garvey, so that he wouldn't have the technical know how of running business, economics, architecture, modern engineering, social welfare, and civics. Did you know that our government also blocked smart Black people from abroad from entering the United States to assist Garvey?

This book should be required reading:

Betrayal by Any Other Name: 300 years of Black and Hispanic Leadership

By Khalid Abdullah Tariq Al-Mansour

Sorry Cool Breeze

The post that I wrote in response to yours is deleted (along with a post to Zarisun on Palestine on another thread) and I don’t feel like typing another one. Maybe this topic will come up some other time. Sorry.