Leaders who can keep the dream alive

Leah Smiley | 7/24/2014, 3:33 p.m.
Over the last month, I had the privilege of reading two new books on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The ...
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the last month, I had the privilege of reading two new books on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first was written by David L. Chappell, professor of modern history at the University of Oklahoma, titled “Waking From the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King Jr.” The second was an advanced copy of Tavis Smiley’s latest book, “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year,” which will be released in September 2014.

Both books chronicle the difficult last year of King’s life, but Chappell’s book begs the question, “How has the Civil Rights Movement advanced since King’s death?” When I was a child, I wondered who could lead the Black community. Who could fill the shoes of slain civil rights leaders and ensure that all people are treated fairly and have access to equal opportunities for success?

As we look at the Black community today, the biggest concern is not those who are keeping us from success, it is how we are impeding our own progress. There are three big issues for leaders to address for the future sustainability of the Black community: violence, education and discrimination.


In urban areas throughout the U.S., Black folks are shooting each other in outlandish numbers. This year alone, the Huffington Post reported that more than 40 people were shot over Easter weekend in Chicago, while Fox News reported that Philadelphia has already seen 52 murders in 69 days. In 2013, Fox News reported that 25 people were shot in New York City during a 48-hour period.


Within our inner-city schools are some of the most brilliant people in the world, but modern-day urban culture encourages underperformance and mediocrity through poor decisions, peer pressure and negative multimedia images. For example, hip-hop music was once a genre of change—motivating individuals to move out of the ghettos and into better social standing. Today, rap music glorifies shooting, killing, drugs, money and sex.

Songs are filled with lyrics that kids memorize and reinforce every day by repeating the words, speaking those negative things into existence. Even white youth repeat the N-word (as heard in rap music) when talking to other white youth to signify that the two are boys. In fact, if you look up “my boy” on Urbandictionary.com, related words are: my dude, friend, homie and nigga. Not “nigger” but “nigga,” which, according to youth, has a different connotation and meaning.

With my own children, I realized that if they can recite lyrics to a song or words from a movie verbatim, they can remember math facts, the spelling of words, geography and much more. Derwin Smiley, a former Indianapolis public school teacher and the host of “The Derwin Smiley Show,” says, “Learning is fun and interesting in the suburbs, but in the inner cities, learning is a task filled with tests.”

Thus, education presents a risky proposition for students of color. Not only is there the threat of violence from their peers, but teachers and school officials appear to be threatened by the mere presence of some students of color. The U.S. Department of Education recently released a report showing that “although Black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students.”