Fudge departure must be wake up call for 11th District’s Black civic leaders

The gale force entry of former state senator Nina Turner into the developing race to succeed Cleveland area Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, pending her confirmation as the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, knocked our plans for this column momentarily askew.

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Republished with permission of The Real Deal.

The gale force entry of former state senator Nina Turner into the developing race to succeed Cleveland area Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, pending her confirmation as the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, knocked our plans for this column momentarily askew. 

Having discussed here in Part I and here in Part II the District’s proud origins and history, and its importance to Cleveland’s black community, we had planned to advocate for a new process whereby we might begin more effectively to cultivate the generation of new black political leadership. 

Turner’s reemergence on the local scene, taken together with the initiative Justin Bibb is showing in the race to replace Frank Jackson next year, might seem to suggest a reinvigorated local political scene. But Black Cleveland needs a long term strategy if it is ever to realize its potential as an agentic community or capitalize on its status as the city’s largest ethnic group. 

If we can do that, we would not only address our seemingly intractable problems of poverty and despair, we would galvanize a sorely needed larger civic vision that for once was truly inclusive, not just so in our typical top down pro forma way. 

So, while Rep. Fudge is still our Congresswoman, we should consider that a smart community has a system for developing and nurturing talent. Let us realize that the mid-twentieth century ecology that produced our community’s greatest political talent — the Stokes Brothers — is not the environment we inhabit today. Carl and Louis Stokes, separately and collectively, were a once in a lifetime occurrence, products of a compact hothouse black community where they could attach themselves to a John Holly, perhaps black Cleveland’s greatest civic leader, and imbibe his sense of community service and spirit.

Carl and Lou came of age at a time when avenues for black excellence were tightly constricted. Many avenues of career and professional development were unavailable. Black people were unwelcome in every professional association. Black real estate agents could not participate in multiple listing services and could not even call themselves realtors, forcing them to invent the term “realtists”. You couldn’t find a black professional anywhere from downtown east until you neared 55th and Woodland Ave.

How did we overcome? We got organized, informally and formally. John Holly formed The Future Outlook League, which quickly became 10,000 strong, forcing employers large and small to open their hiring gates.

Informally, civic leaders convened Operation Alert, a regular conclave of community leaders who shared information, plotted how to capitalize on vulnerable points in the area’s apartheid regime, and discussed how to navigate both opportunities and crises, whether sudden or foreseeable. 

The eventual 1960s breakthrough was communal, collective, cultural, and simultaneously national, global, and local. 

Regrettably, once black people began to find status and success in positions of public service, i.e. as elected officials, the definition and pecking order of community leaders and spokespeople began to shift, often with unfavorable results. Sometimes we placed impossible demands upon some of these officials. More often we asked too little of them and failed to hold them accountable. And most fatally, we failed to recognize the extent to which they in fact often answer to interests outside the community that are inimical to our own.

How can we change a system where too many of our elected officials do not work for us, do not respect us, do not love us enough to care for our welfare?

In much of the black community, the quality of our elected officials is left to chance. We do not identify, train, nurture and develop our political leaders. They self-select, more often than not becoming beholden to those who finance their campaigns.

There has to be a better way.

To find it, we spoke over the past month with a number of folks from all walks of life about the black community might develop a more effective politics. The brightest among them were quick to decouple the issue from any particular office or imminent election.  The frustration and despair that sometimes peeked through our questioning gave way before long to hope as we realized the enormous talent that already resides within our community. 

In the midst of our discussions, cleveland.com published a column that purported to identify some leading candidates to succeed Fudge. With a couple of exceptions, the list was tired, perhaps reflecting a veteran reporter’s old paradigm and his obvious disconnect from the black community of the present and future. It seemed almost an attempt to select a leader for us.

This is what happens when by our inaction we leave the field to others. 

In the next and final installment of this series, appearing this Sunday, we will explore how we might become, as a friend of mine is wont to say, “active participants of our own deliverance.”

R.T. Andrews is founder and editor of The Real Deal.

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