Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 years old when he led the groundbreaking Civil Rights battle, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Constance Baker Motley was 29 when she helped prepare briefs in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. John H. Johnson was 24 when he started Johnson Publishing Company, parent of Ebony and Jet magazines and a force for social change. Maynard Jackson Jr. was 35 when he was elected to his first term as mayor of Atlanta. Oprah Winfrey was 32 when she launched Harpo Productions. (By the way, I was 34 when I began to lay the groundwork to launch Black Enterprise.)
I’ve just identified just a few great African Americans who stepped up to the demands of leadership at critical times when they were between the ages of 21 and 35—the age group that Black Enterprise spotlights as the BE Next generation. And, if we ever needed BE Next leaders of consequence to step up and make a difference, to courageously deliver the solutions and ideas necessary to deal with the challenges we face as a people, a nation, and a world, we sorely need them now.
Without great leadership our institutions become stale, out of touch, and ineffective. Even as we hold great leaders of the past in high esteem and show appreciation for current leaders, including President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, we will always need fresh thinkers and courageous new change agents, unafraid to stand in the line of fire for just causes and noble purposes. We need young men and women of vision who can show all of us the way to a better future. Where are our next leaders?
Wherever and whoever you are, we desperately need you. The public school system charged with educating black children is in shambles. Voter ID laws threaten to neuter voting rights, while the misapplication of stand-your-ground legislation could make it open season on young black males, creating thousands of Trayvon Martins. Streets in black communities across the country run red with the blood of gun violence and gang infestation, as black joblessness goes unabated, and healthcare and higher education are increasingly out of reach.
I could go on, but you get my point. These are big problems, requiring bold problem solvers with new ideas. Our current generation of leaders are doing what they know to do, and should be commended. However young leaders with new ideas need not wait for them to step aside and grant permission to attack the problems threatening the survival and progress of African Americans with vigor and innovation, as well as passion and integrity.
The next Maynard Jacksons and Constance Baker Motleys are out there. Serving in Afghanistan. Struggling as a single parent. Working their way through graduate school. Leading a youth ministry. Reforming from a criminal past. Thinking about options after a pro sports career. Launching the next great business. Driving innovation at a global corporation. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, we need you. It’s time for today’s BE Next generation to step up, solve problems, and make a difference.