African American Public Dissent In West Virginia
How public tensions of African American leaders openly advanced debate and provide forums for philosophical disagreement.
African American Public Dissent In West Virginia
The African American community is not a monolith. Like any other community, it has a compendium of opinions, voices and perspectives, However, unlike other communities, there is often a hidden, unwritten expectation that dissident voices are somewhat disloyal if intra-community disagreement is made public.
Even with this unwritten and unofficial compact, there have been historic battles of disagreement by African American leaders on substantive issues. For instance, the great Booker T. Washington and the great W.E.B DuBois were known for their philosophical battles at the turn of the 20th century.
Washington advocated that racism would end when Blacks acquired labor skills and proved our economic value, essentially providing a platform based upon economic uplift. He felt that social equality would only be achieved later after economic success was proven, and therefore did not advocate for social equality. He also believed that the best way to this so-called economic success was found in the skills and trades for the masses of people coming out of the slavery experience.
DuBois countered and encouraged African Americans to resist systems of segregation and discrimination. He also encouraged African Americans( at least a “talented tenth)" to enter college, inspire, and devote themselves to advancing the race forward.
The battles were legendary and very public. Nevertheless, they provided philosophical camps for debate and discussions that lasts until this day.
Another more contemporary example was the philosophical differences between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, later known as Minister El Malik Shabazz. It is well known that Dr. King advocated for peaceful marches and nonviolent sit-ins to accomplish social integration and racial equality. Concurrently, Malcolm X esteemed Black culture, history, and beauty, which ignited a movement that injected “Black Power” and “Black Pride” into the lexicon.
Minister Malcolm argued that oppressors will never willingly grant equality, thus it must be demanded and taken “by any means necessary.”
These are just two examples of how the public tensions of African American leaders openly advanced debate and provided forums for philosophical disagreement. At one time, I thought this unfortunate, but I have grown to realize that these public debates were useful to crystallize thought and assisted in the maturation of the African American community.
In West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley, philosophical disagreement has often been tamped down in the African American community in order to preserve the status quo. There is a sense that those who publicly criticize the actions of other African American leaders should be ridiculously compared to a “crabs in the barrel” syndrome and that dissent should be made privately.
Additionally, so-called allies are given carte blanche protection from scrutiny because of their alleged alliances. This is used by a quasi-liberal establishment that is recurrently more interested in controlling the community and curbing dissident African American voices rather than in the true anti-racist advancement.
Recently, this has been illustrated in more than one public situation. For instance, the administration of the City of Charleston decided to reestablish the Sternwheel Regatta without any notice to the board of MultiFest or acknowledgment that MultiFest was established because of the lack of diversity of the former Regatta. Steve Starks led a protest against the Regatta in the early 1990s because of the Regatta Board’s intransigence and privilege that ultimately led to his establishment of MultiFest as a festival that celebrated diversity.
GREATER KANAWHA VALLEY FOUNDATION RACE MATTERS The recent “Race Matters” series by the Kanawha Valley Foundation comprised a panel of virtually all-white community leaders to discuss solutions on race that have come under national scrutiny and ridicule because of the indisputable lack of diversity on the panel.
When the inappropriateness of this panel was pointed out on social media, it received national attention. I was confronted by one of the organizers and was told I should have come to them privately rather than point out the obvious issue with their panel.
The Panelists Went From This:
As I wrote in an earlier column, what good does a conversation on race matter if the issues that mean the most to underserved communities are not considered in the conversation and there is no meaningful change? Symbolic feel-good moments that are used to appease the status quo by business and political leaders are not appropriate nor useful.
Finally, political leaders like Senator Joe Manchin and others attempt to cover themselves against political dissent by manipulating African American leaders and institutions.
Case in point: many national and local African American and progressive voices (myself amongst them) have protested against Senator Manchin because he has blocked the progressive agenda of the Biden administration. Manchin has almost single handedly thwarted national attempts at voting rights and economic advancement for struggling populations.
A commercial in support of Senator Manchin’s political positions filmed in the hallowed civil rights sanctuary of the historic Charleston First Baptist Church aired recently.
This is hallowed civil rights ground because it is the same pulpit that was nationally known for African American uplift when the great pastors of the past, Rev. Dr. Mordecai Johnson, Rev. Dr. Vernon Johns, and Rev. Moses Newsome pastored the Church. This covered much of the 20th Century; the 1920s for Johnson, the ’20s and ’30s for Johns and the ‘40s to the ’70s for Newsome. Dr. King spoke at First Baptist in the ’60s and some of his biographies have suggested that Dr. King’s father wanted him to assume the pastorate of this historic church before his assassination.
Many were appalled when they viewed this blatantly political and misrepresentative message coming from the sanctuary of this historic church. Nevertheless, ire should be directed toward the Manchin machine instead of against the Pastor who is my friend and, in my own personal opinion, was deceived and misused.
Importantly, the pastor has changed his stance and joined ranks with us who have been opposing Senator Manchin and was arrested crying,"Manchin! Manchin! Can you hear us?"People of character will admit mistakes, and he has.
It is also very concerning that political leaders and their minions often try to have African Americans print opinion pieces that are written for them to support their positions. No one should ever allow their names to be used on articles that they did not compose.
Finally, publicly held positions and actions can only be met publicly. Our community is mature enough to have a public debate; as the debates between Washington and DuBois and the philosophical differences of King and Malcolm X show, we will be better informed and equipped if we have a rational discussion on the issues.
So be it, and let the public debates begin!
David Fryson is an attorney and the retired founding Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of the West Virginia Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, is the Senior Pastor of the New First Baptist Church of Kanawha City. He is currently serving as the interim Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Brandeis University in the Boston area.
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