Speech: Isiah Leggett at Howard University, 2007
Originally posted on Washington Post
A speech made by Isiah Leggett at Howard University’s Charter Day Convocation on March 9, 2007:
I have been in the audience of these convocations on so many occasions and felt enormous admiration for those honored on this stage. The lives and words of previous speakers filled me with inspiration. Now, standing here today, it is impossible for me to describe to you, my friends and colleagues, the emotion of this very moment.
My heart is filled with the deepest affection for everything and everyone who was and is Howard University.
My spirit soars with the satisfaction I have derived from the scholarship, camaraderie, and fulfillment I have found here in the 36 years that I have been privileged to study and teach among you. In a very special way, I am humbled by the students who have entrusted to me the profound responsibility to prepare them professionally for their service to humankind in the practice of law.
For 140 years, Howard University has prepared young people, mostly African American, for professional careers. No university has sent into the world more African American lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers and other professionals than Howard University.
This university has contributed mightily to the transformation of African Americans from the agrarian underclass into which we were once relegated to our present status as full participants in this nation’s economic, social, and political life. Howard University is acknowledged as an epic American educational success story.
We are achieving success in every aspect of American life. However, much more needs to be done to eliminate the remaining barriers and to advance the march for justice and equal opportunity which has been so eloquently defined, and courageously defended, by leaders educated here at Howard.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to earn two Howard University degrees. In keeping with Howard’s expectations, I have dedicated my life in two worthy overlapping professions.
I have been a member of the esteemed faculty here at Howard Law School and the other, participating in public service as a civic leader and elected official in Maryland.
I cherish both of these professions with equal affection. Each has balanced the other in my life by enhancing my leadership and commitment to the study of law and the general public that I serve.
My education at Howard University was second to none. Among the lessons I learned, none stirred my spirit more than the university’s expectation that its graduates, because of who we were, from whence we came, and for the great gift of the world class education Howard provided, were compelled to participate substantially in the development of just public policies to advance our nation and the world toward the goal of a dignified existence for every individual.
As we gather here today we can celebrate the achievement of many of the leaders that Howard has helped to prepare for careers in civil and human rights over the past 50 years. In constitutions throughout the world, equality is more assured; in court rooms, rights are better protected for all.
In every corner of this nation, as African Americans we can live downtown, uptown, out-of-town, or anywhere else we choose and our resources permit. We have greater access to jobs and professions, entrepreneurial opportunities and political office. Many of our children are learning in better schools, closing the achievement gaps and graduating from top-ranked universities like Howard.
Where, not long ago, we dared to dream, today we have the audacity to lead in some of the most significant leadership positions available.
In the 140 years since Howard’s founding, we have seen triumphs and disappointments, two steps forward, one step backward, and the shattering of legal and social barriers only to encounter new problems and new challenges.
The struggle we have waged has been educational to be sure, for nothing is more uplifting to a people than to light the lamp of learning.
The struggle has been economic, because true independence depends on the ability to earn a decent living, grow a business, amass capital to pass along to our children, and for them to pass on to theirs.
The struggle has been social, as we have pushed up against the stereotypes and roles that others have in mind for us.
And a key part of that struggle, to make America truly a land of opportunity for all, it has also been extremely political.
So long as we didn’t have the vote, we didn’t count to those who made the decisions. So long as we were not elected to public office, we did not have a seat at the table and a voice in the outcome.
And now some of us are fortunate enough not only to have a seat at the table, but also to sit at the head of the table.
Before we look at where we are now, and where we are headed in the future, we need to take a look back.
In 1964, there were only 100 African American elected officials in the entire country. Today, there are more than 10,000.
We have fought the good fight to win districts where African Americans would have a fair chance to win. In 1982, the state of Virginia was 20 percent Black ¿ and had never elected an African American to Congress. North Carolina was 22 percent Black with 11 white Congressmen ¿ and hadn’t elected an African American to Congress in 90 years. Louisiana and South Carolina were both 30 percent Black ¿ and all 14 of their Congress members were all white.
The fact is that in recent years we have elected Members of Congress, city council members, state senators and representatives, sheriffs and school board members, in significant part, based on our sheer numbers and our organized political strength, in designated geographical areas where we are the majority or near majority.
My friends we are at a crossroads. African Americans need to go beyond our earlier political models if we are to move forward in broadening our influence and gain the resources we need to address problems that sometimes seem intractable.
Political opportunities abound for African Americans. We govern great cities and small towns. We cast votes in State legislatures and on Capitol Hill. We are courted as Cabinet Secretaries and as the ideal complement on state and national political slates.
For most, the source of this affection derives from the increased political importance of the African American constituency. African Americans are voting in greater numbers today and often for other African Americans in whom they can trust and identify.
Generations of suffering fathers and mothers would surely weep with joy and glow with pride at the political achievements of their descendants in the United States today. Indeed, we have accomplished many of the political leadership goals articulated by visionary leaders in their speeches, writings, and prayers here at Howard.
However, the challenge before us is that our progress, while commendable, lags behind the leadership opportunities available today and in the foreseeable future. In short, despite our growing political strength, we are woefully underachieving.
I believe we are underachieving, in part, because our leadership goals and strategies failed to adjust to the vast and unanticipated change in the demographics of the final two decades of the 20th century. This failure has left the state of African American political leadership, once again, challenged and weak.
My friends, for the most part, what we have accomplished is to simply maximize the African American vote in African American communities where we are the majority. This is well and good but this achievement, standing alone, is insignificant for our long term political survival. At the end of the day 12 percent is still just 12 percent.
There are very few jurisdictions remaining in this nation where we have not already elected African Americans to represent virtually all of our communities, yet we still lack the political influence to adequately effect public policy in a significant manner. The model that has served us well in the past campaigns that elected most African American leaders has now bumped up against a ceiling.
At the same time as we bump up against that ceiling, the very definition of who a leader is in our community and what that leader’s responsibility is to our agenda has turned a corner.
For example, in the 1950s, many of us could only look to our teachers, our ministers, and a few military professionals in our community as role models. With rare exceptions, many of our earlier elected officials cut their leadership “teeth” on the front lines of the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s.
But if we fast forward to 2007, the “soldiers” of the Civil Rights movement unfortunately are slowly stepping away from the stage. They are being replaced by the children who are the beneficiaries of those “soldiers” and by those who came to political leadership in ways different from some of the earlier African American political leaders.
Some of the newer leaders have been elected to represent jurisdictions where African Americans make up only a small piece of the electorate. I think of Ron Sims, the County Executive in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, the new governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, or Senator Barack Obama from Illinois.
As happened many years earlier with Tom Bradley in Los Angeles and Doug Wilder in Virginia, some have asked if these elected officials are “Black” enough? Are they “authentic?” Are they African American public officials or are they public officials who happen to be African American? Is there a difference? Are we accountable first to our community? Or is the community an after thought, taken for granted?
And how do we adjust to the emerging political realities confronting us today? I believe that my overall life and leadership experiences have given me a rather unique perspective on how I view this issue.
As someone with a foot in the mode of both leadership camps, let me use my own life and experience as a way of answering this question.
I was raised under some unique and very difficult circumstances in Louisiana. I was one of 13 children living in a house with three rooms ¿ not three bedrooms, three rooms. Neither my mother nor my father had much education but my mother placed a very high value on the importance of an education, and always reminded me of it. I wanted to go to college but had no money. My high school coach told me about a work scholarship program at Southern University in Baton Rouge, so I went down one morning to apply.
The woman at the registrar’s office said I didn’t qualify, but I wouldn’t give up. I came back again before lunch, after lunch and then again at the close of the business day.
“She said, “I am sick and tired of seeing you. You don’t qualify for this work program but a member of our landscaping staff has just quit. If you’ll do that, we will enroll you in college.”
So I worked my way through school mowing grass. And I promised myself then and there that after that experience I would never again mow any grass that wasn’t my own.
I’m sure there were probably other folks on other campuses like me who served as both student body president and as a leader in the Civil Rights movement on campus. But maybe I was unique in that I also, at the same time, headed up the ROTC unit on campus.
Influenced by role models in my community, I was then intent on pursuing the military as a career. Two years as an infantry Captain in Vietnam cured me of that.
I saw the dirty side of the war. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. I came to the conclusion that war in and of itself was the end result of failure somewhere further up the line.
You can argue that it was this or that side’s fault. The result is still the same: God’s creatures killing each other.
I came back from Vietnam wanting to affect public policy so that future failures wouldn’t have to happen.
And I found Howard University. Howard took the raw elements of leadership that I had exhibited earlier in college, in the civil rights struggle, and in Vietnam and polished them and made them fine.
Among many other things, Howard helped me develop the leadership skills necessary to succeed in virtually any arena.
For example, when I first ran for public office in 1986, there had never been an African American on the Montgomery County Council or elected to any truly political leadership position in the county. In a county where the African American population at that time was only six percent, I won the election and was reelected to the Council three times with overwhelming margins.
Last year, I was elected County Executive in one of the largest, most affluent counties in the nation. We won by a 26 point margin against an opponent who outspent me five to one and our African American population is only 14 percent.
But, I am not the first African American to do so. We have had others obtain political leadership positions throughout our history under similar circumstances.
But, far too often, African American candidates have won in places where there are large African American majorities, have lost where we are the minority, and have been absent from the ballot altogether in places with high percentages of multi-ethnic communities.
We have forged our political successes from the traditional ironclad support of African American constituencies. But we have been less successful at creating the stronger and more enduring alliances, derived from combining the diverse elements which are increasingly found in American communities today.
African American political leaders will have greater success, especially in campaigns for top elected offices, when we effectively meld the reliable strength of traditional African American constituencies with the emerging multi-cultural and diverse communities which are seeking more influence upon public policies.
I see a great opportunity for African Americans to lead in the 21st century if we honor and retain our traditional political roots and unite these with emerging diverse constituencies, particularly, immigrant communities. And, I believe, if we fail in this regard, we risk missing the current opportunity to assume greater leadership roles in the United States and the world in the future.
I am convinced that we can do this with leaders who have the political dexterity not to lose their traditional civil rights underpinnings yet still manage to reach across diverse culture and political lines.
It is abundantly clear that all of our diverse communities throughout this country want respect for their uniqueness, participation at the decision making table, conciliation in place of confrontation, and leadership that promotes a unified vision for better communities over divisiveness.
I believe that African Americans can win a greater number of elections in jurisdictions where we are the minority population. Here’s how we are doing it:
¿ We do it by building broad coalitions, across generational and ethnic and racial lines — building one community.
¿ We do it by campaigning with a record of extensive community involvement so that when we seek the support of groups, we are viewed as neighbors who have already rolled up our sleeves and previously worked alongside a broad cross-section of our diverse population.
¿ We do it by promising to be honest brokers to electorates who are tired of business-as-usual and suspicious of the influence of special interests.
¿ We do it by running positive campaigns and avoiding “slash and burn” and “gotcha” politics.
¿ We do it by not promising everyone the “moon and stars” and by demonstrating that we can construct sustainable budgets and make prudent use of public tax dollars.
¿ And, most importantly, we do it by insisting that “character counts” ¿ and setting a high moral and ethical tone.
It is obvious that there are political forces that are openly and privately working to ensure that the growing diverse communities of our nation do not unite for our collective benefit. And, it is also obvious that some of us in our community have unwittingly bought into this attempt to keep our emerging diverse communities from creating any meaningful political alliance.
But, the stakes are too high and the harm too great for us not to recognize that this emerging inclusive leadership for all communities is so necessary for our shared future.
Far too frequently, in our own midst, there are too many children who are born too early, and die too soon. There are too many who come to our hospital emergency rooms as victims of violence. And, AIDS still takes more lives here than we can bear or justify.
As tragic as the number of AIDS victims in the US is, in other parts of the world, particularly in Africa, that number is multiplied beyond the grasp of our cognitive and emotional capacity.
There are too many conflicts and wars around the world. There are too many individuals ill-fed and lacking shelter in our country.
There are too many who die of drug abuse, and far too many of the diverse populations around the world incarcerated.
These and other local and global issues are far too important to the African American community for us to make our leadership decisions on the sole basis of whether African Americans leaders are “Black” enough.
For some unexplained reason, many are testing the electability of African Americans by tracing our leadership heritage, and credentials for elected office to whether one marched in Selma, or was arrested at a lunch counter sit-in, to determine if some black individuals are worthy of support.
Fortunately, I have done both and I now realize that it is time that we move on to embrace and help prepare future leaders develop the capacity to lead more diverse and inclusive communities around the nation.
Howard University, more that any other institution, can play an important role in preparing leaders who can successfully forge enduring partnerships comprised of our traditional civil and human rights with emerging communities that are founded upon universal moral principles with local and global applicability for all.
This is our challenge.
May God continue to bless Howard University, this grand institution that has over the past 140 years sharpened our intellect, softened our hearts, and sparked our genius. Thank you.