Does the Nation Need a Modern-Day Martin Luther King?

Some believe African-Americans must mobilize to bring about change.

Posted: 08/23/2013 12:00 AM EDT

When asked who in the world has influenced him most, Rep. John Lewis, a national treasure in his own right, states the obvious.

"Dr. King had such an influence in molding and shaping my life," he told BET.com. "I heard of him when I was 15 and met him when I was 18, and it changed me forever."

Lewis is not alone. During one of the most tumultuous periods in the nation's history, King inspired both Blacks and whites to put on the line their freedom, and in some cases albeit unintentionally, their lives, to ensure equal rights and opportunity for all Americans.

Despite many significant gains as a result of the civil rights era, today, much like then, Black America is adrift.

Persistently high levels of unemployment, a renewed voting rights battle, despair over the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and deepening fissures in race relations have caused small movements to sprout around the nation.

Passions are high for now. Civil rights leaders are hoping that the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington will be a springboard for a level of activism not seen since the 1960s.

But who would keep it going? Does the nation, and African-Americans in particular, need a modern-day leader like King, Medgar Evers and other icons to keep a new movement in motion?

San Francisco State University professor Robert Smith believes the answer is yes.

"The kind of bureaucratic, institutional leadership that we have today for the most part cannot fill that role and speak to the deep disenchantment and anger of African-Americans," he said. "If you're part of the established order, then you have to play by the establishment's rules. Someone not bound by those rules [is freer to] express the sentiments of ordinary people."

Who might fill that role, however, is a mystery. Those who dare to employ the kind of soaring rhetoric King used to deliver his message tend to go too far, discrediting themselves in the process. Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Princeton professor Cornel West are two prime examples.

But in their day, as Smith noted, both King and Evers were considered controversial by some rabble-rousers whose activism risked the safety of others.

University of Louisville political scientist Dewey Clayton believes African-Americans must take responsibility for bringing the change and progress they're looking for.

"We cannot and should not sit around waiting for someone like a King to come along," Clayton said.

Heartened by North Carolina's Moral Mondays, boycotts in Florida in response to the Zimmerman verdict and other protests, Clayton says that African-Americans are realizing how effective political mobilization among themselves and in partnership with whites and other racial ethnic groups can be.

"That's what it took in the '60s; a lot of people aren't aware of that," he said. "It's not any one person; everyone collectively needs to realize that there is strength in numbers, not just in voting but getting out to actively lobby local, state and national governments."

James Braxton Peterson, a professor at Lehigh University, MSNBC contributor and former BET.com columnist, shares that sentiment.

Citing a scholarly tome by author Erica Edwards titled Charisma, he says the notion of "the exceptional, charismatic, rhetorically gifted leader is one we've had for a long time, but it's time to move beyond that."

A key factor will be women leading the current movement as was the case during the original civil rights movement.

"We want to bring women out of the shadows of Black leadership and the collaborative model makes more sense for the level of complexity and issues we have to deal with in these times," Peterson said. "I hope we're already on our way."

Both Clayton and Peterson cited a growing need for African-Americans to become more civically involved at all levels, from supporting Black political candidates to running for office and jury duty.

"If we can learn anything from President Obama's campaigns it's that when we create a coalition we can make a lot of difference. The demographics are on our side," Clayton said. "I'm hoping that during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that people recognize a renewed demand for us to become politically active because if we don't we're going to lose this country."

Lewis agrees that everyone has a role to play in what has turned out to be an ongoing civil rights struggle. Still, he would like to see another great leader who, like King, can embody "our hopes, dreams and aspirations."

"Some people would say we don't need that but I am one of these individuals who believes that in every age you need someone or some group that is the personification of the best of us," King said. "Every period demands some strong person or persons to get out there. I don't know whether we'll be so lucky or blessed to see that type of leader again, but you have to continue to believe and have hope."

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(Photo: OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

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