Legacy of Leadership in the Black Community: 15 Leaders in Public Service

September 16, 2013 by MPA@UNC Staff

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 43rd Annual Legislative Conference, to be held September 18–21, 2013, is a gathering of some of the greatest minds in the black community, including politicians, activists, constituents, and policy makers. In honor of this upcoming event, MPA@UNC is highlighting 15 black leaders who have and continue to make a difference in the public sector. The challenges these leaders have faced and the triumphs they have achieved provide leadership lessons and fascinating insights into the world of public service.

Barack Obama
Age: 52
Position: President of the United States
Education: Occidental College, Columbia University, Harvard Law School
Leadership Lesson: Be a trailblazer.

Barack Obama is a man of firsts. He is the first black president and the first president to be born in Hawaii. He was also the first black president of The Harvard Review and the first presidential candidate to heavily utilize social media during a campaign.

Among his more notable achievements as Commander-in-Chief, President Obama ordered the removal of American troops from Iraq, oversaw the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and initiated a new system of healthcare. Plus, he became the first sitting president to publically support same-sex marriage.

Before entering Harvard Law School, Obama was a community organizer in Illinois, working for Developing Communities Project on Chicago’s South Side. At Harvard, he gained notoriety for his work at the Harvard Law Review, which eventually led to a contract for his first memoir, Dreams from My Father. He became a professor at the University of Chicago and taught law for 12 years.

Obama served three terms in the Illinois Senate before being elected to the United States Senate in 2004, where he remained until his presidential campaign began in 2008. After beating John McCain in the election — assisted heavily by motivated young voters — he was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, 2009. He was re-elected over Mitt Romney to a second term in 2012.

Eleanor Holmes Norton
Age: 76
Position: Delegate to the United States Congress
Education: Yale Law School, Yale University, Antioch College
Leadership Lesson: Follow your passion.

Due to the unique political situation of Washington, D.C., Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, is a non-voting member of the House of Representatives. As a “delegate,” she can serve on committees — including the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — but cannot vote on the floor of the House. Gaining full congressional voting status for the District has been a career-long battle for Norton, a third-generation Washingtonian.

Before she was elected, Norton developed a passion for civil and human rights issues, working in Mississippi in the early 1960s and helping Martin Luther King, Jr. organize his march on Washington in 1963. She worked as assistant legal director for the New York City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union before being appointed as chairwoman of the NYC Commission on Human Rights. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Norton to chair the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Congresswoman Norton is now in her 12th term of service, having first been elected in 1991.

In addition to her political career, Norton is a tenured professor at Georgetown University and also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Colin Powell
Age: 76
Position: 65th U.S. Secretary of State
Education: City College of New York, George Washington University
Leadership Lesson: Use diplomacy before force.

In addition to being the first black Secretary of State, Colin Powell is also a retired four-star general in the U.S. Army. Having been appointed to the cabinet in January of 2001, much of General Powell’s four-year career as secretary was dominated by the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was a supporter of swift military action against al-Qaeda and also an advocate for a UN investigation into intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The information from that investigation — despite being found partially untrue in 2004 — was the catalyst for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Gen. Powell urged the George W. Bush administration to wait until a long-term plan for occupation could be developed and a multi-nation coalition of allies assembled. His career as secretary of state was also characterized by diplomatic issues stemming from notoriously delicate relations with Russia and China, issues with nuclear weapons in North Korea and Libya, an increasingly tense relationship between India and Pakistan, and a few international natural disasters.

Gen. Powell has also served as national security advisor, commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War.

Cory Booker
Age: 44
Position: Mayor of Newark, New Jersey
Education: Yale Law School, the Queens College at Oxford, Stanford University
Leadership Lesson: Lead by example.

Cory Booker was elected as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2006. In 2013, he became the Democratic candidate for Senate following a special election. His reputation for action and response in the city caught the eye of the Democratic Party as well as his constituents. Perhaps most famous for his acts of heroism, which include running into a burning building to save a woman inside, Booker has also mastered social media as a way to communicate with his constituents. He once showed up at the house of a concerned citizen to shovel her driveway, so her elderly father wouldn’t attempt to do it after she tweeted about her concern.

But his actions also convey his devotion to public service. In addition to living in one of the worst neighborhoods in Newark until 2009, Booker once challenged himself to live on a “food stamp budget” to demonstrate the difficulties of inefficient access to food.

Booker, the third black mayor of Newark, served as Newark city counselor for four years before running for mayor.

Condoleezza Rice
Age: 58
Position: 66th U.S. Secretary of State
Education: University of Notre Dame, University of Denver, Miles College
Leadership Lesson: Whether in sports or the White House, racial barriers can always be broken.

Growing up in the South, Condoleezza Rice had a front-row view of racial segregation and tense race relations, but she didn’t let that stop her from becoming a well-respected politician. She became the first female black secretary of state under former President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2009. Previously, she served as the national security advisor. But the secretary of state position wasn’t Rice’s first “first,” as she had become the first black provost at Stanford University in 1993. During her tenure as secretary, Rice focused on “transformational democracy” by bringing foreign diplomacy to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Angola while striving to establish strong diplomatic relations all over the world.

Rice continued to break barriers when she was one of the first women asked to join the famed, all-male Augusta National Golf Club in 2012.

She made an appearance at the 2012 RNC convention to announce her support for the Romney/Ryan ticket, but assured the crowd she was done with politics for a while.

Michael Steele
Age: 54
Position: Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee
Education: Johns Hopkins University, Villanova University, Georgetown University
Leadership Lesson: Help those who need help.

Currently a political analyst for MSNBC, Michael Steele served as the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) from 2009 until 2011. But that wasn’t his first time breaking racial barriers. He was also the first black person elected in a Maryland statewide election to the position of lieutenant governor. He took on this role after serving as the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and was the first black person to be elected to chair any state for the Republican Party. Much of his political career has been focused on promoting the interests of minorities through minority-owned business and education reforms.

After an unsuccessful bid for Senate in 2008, Steele joined a Washington, D.C. law firm and became the chairman of GOPAC, a Republican organization that helps prepare candidates for election. In 2009, perhaps as a counter to the newly elected President Barack Obama, Steele became the chairman of the RNC.

Harold Washington
Life span: 1922–1987
Position: 51st Mayor of Chicago
Education: Roosevelt College, Northwestern University School of Law
Leadership Lesson: Always take the high road and people will respect your courage.

Harold Washington is most lauded for his devotion to the revitalization of Chicago after the mayoral election in 1983. After winning the mayoral primary with help from a large minority-voting block, Washington squared off against and beat Republican Richard M. Daley, who was favored by many white voters. Prior to becoming the mayor, Washington served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a member of the Illinois Senate, and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives.

During his time as mayor, Washington faced fierce opposition — dubbed the “Council Wars” — in trying to pass legislation and appointing people to boards and commissions. Somewhat ironically, the blatant disrespect Washington endured garnered the support of white liberals, who ended up securing his re-election in 1987.

Sadly, a few months after being re-elected, Washington suffered a massive heart attack while working in his office in city hall and passed away, leaving behind a legacy of political passion and social activism.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Age: 43
Position: Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland
Education: Oberlin College, University of Maryland Law School
Leadership Lesson: Never back down from a challenge.

At the age of 25, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was the youngest person to ever be elected to the Baltimore City Council. She went on to represent the council’s fifth and sixth districts between 1995 and 2007, developing a deep understanding and passion for serving the Baltimore community. She became the mayor after Sheila Dixon’s resignation in 2010 and received 87 percent of the vote during the 2011 election. Most recently, she was appointed secretary of the Democratic National Committee and elected the second vice president of the United States Conference of Mayors.

Being the mayor of a city struggling with economic depression and increased violence is a challenging job requiring astute preparation and careful financial planning. One of her priorities was creating the city’s first long-range financial plan, which includes investing in infrastructure, changing the way the city does business, and demolishing vacant homes. Her real goal is to grow the city by 10,000 families by improving facilities, lowering property taxes, and making Baltimore a more inviting place to live.

John Lewis
Age: 73
Position: U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District
Education: American Baptist Theological Seminary, Fisk University
Leadership Lesson: Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.

John Lewis was an incredibly dynamic civil rights activist. He was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization of the American Civil Rights Movement, during a historically volatile time. Under his leadership, the organization opened “freedom schools” and launched the “freedom summer” to register black voters. Lewis himself was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders facing violent assaults from the Ku Klux Klan and angry mobs. In 1963, he helped organize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous March on Washington and gave a speech at the event.

After several failed election attempts, Lewis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 and has since been re-elected 12 times. In his roll as a congressman, Lewis has spoken out in favor of gay rights and nationalized healthcare. Among his many awards for social causes, Lewis received a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama and the only John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

Anthony Foxx
Age: 42
Position: U.S. Secretary of Transportation
Education: Davidson College, New York University
Leadership Lesson: Invest in the infrastructure, invest in the people.

Anthony Foxx hasn’t been the secretary of transportation for very long — he was sworn in on July 2, 2013 — but as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, from 2009 to 2013, he gained significant experience in the world of politics.

Foxx got his start when he was elected to the Charlotte City Council, focusing his energy mainly on green initiatives and the region’s transportation issues.

As mayor, Foxx concentrated on job creation and economic recovery through a restructuring of Charlotte’s transportation investments. His initiatives include a new airport runway, a green streetcar initiative, and an expansion of the light rail system. He was nominated to be the 17th secretary of transportation by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 100 to 0. His goal is to implement his economic solutions by investing in infrastructure on a grander scale.

Valerie Jarrett
Age: 56
Position: Senior Advisor to the President of the United States
Education: Stanford University, University of Michigan
Leadership Lesson: Interesting people can change your career.

Valerie Jarrett wears a few different White House hats. She is the senior advisor to the president of the United States and also the assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs. Her desire to become a public servant was inspired by the birth of her daughter. Jarrett realized she wanted to do something that would make her child proud of her.

Like many of Obama’s advisors, she got her start in Chicago, working for Mayors Harold Washington and Richard Daley before joining the Obama administration in 2009. As one of three senior advisors, Jarrett is responsible for managing several offices within the White House and chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls.

She originally met Barack Obama after offering a job in the Chicago Mayor’s Office to his then fiancé Michelle Robinson.

Deval Patrick
Age: 57
Position: Governor of Massachusetts
Education: Harvard College
Leadership Lesson: Even the underdog sometimes wins.

Deval Patrick, the 71st governor of Massachusetts, is also the first black person — and the first Democrat in 16 years — to hold the office. Patrick spent quite a few years in the private sector before moving to become the U.S. assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division under Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997.

In 2006, Patrick, an underdog candidate, received 55 percent of the vote to become the governor of Massachusetts. Much of his tenure as governor has been focused on economic recovery and education. He increased funds to public education to the highest levels in the history of the state and lobbied for casinos to be built to provide revenue and much-needed jobs. Additionally, Patrick has focused on expanding the state-run health care system enacted under former Gov. Mitt Romney to cover more than 98 percent of state residents.

Regina Benjamin
Age: 56
Position: Former U.S. Surgeon General
Education: Xavier University, Morehouse College, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tulane University
Leadership Lesson: Use your position to help others.

Regina Benjamin recently stepped down from her position as the 18th surgeon general, a position she held since November 2009. Though she didn’t announce any future plans, her previous activism in the health field indicates she won’t be idle for long. Before being appointed to the role of “America’s Doctor,” Benjamin was the first black woman — and the first physician under the age of 40 — to be elected to the American Medical Association (AMA) Board of Trustees. She served as president of the AMA Education and Research Foundation and chair of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. She’s also the first black female president of the Medical Associate State of Alabama and the first black female to preside over a state medical society. Her resume is impressive, but it is her actions that convey a sense of duty to the health of the American people. In 1987, she founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic to provide much-needed medical care to the impoverished area. She rebuilt the clinic after it was damaged during Hurricanes George and Katrina.

Terry Bellamy
Age: 43
Position: Mayor of Asheville, North Carolina
Education: University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Leadership Lesson: Give back to the community that raised you.

Terry Bellamy is the first female mayor in North Carolina and the first black mayor in Asheville. She was elected in 2005 over Republican opponent Joe Dunn, and was re-elected in 2009 to a second term. Though she decided not to run for re-election in 2013, Bellamy, an Asheville native, announced she would be running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Because of her deep-seated relationship with Asheville, Bellamy has spent much of her career working with the middle class population, focusing on job growth and providing safe homes. She was the first black member — and also the youngest member — of the Asheville City Council, which allowed her to develop a knack for working with people of different backgrounds, races, and cultures. Ultimately, that ability to work with anyone would become her signature trait and has allowed her to pursue issues like increasing security in public housing and improving education in the area.

Clarence Thomas
Age: 65
Position: Supreme Court Justice
Education: College of the Holy Cross, Yale Law School
Leadership Lesson: You can learn just as much from listening as you can from speaking.

Clarence Thomas has served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1991. He succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the second black Supreme Court Justice. Though his selection for the position was fraught with controversy, George H.W. Bush successfully appointed him after Thomas served 16 months as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Thomas has shown himself to be a conservative judge — sometimes considered the most conservative of the presiding members — and always favors a very literal interpretation of the Constitution. His voting pattern supports a limited federal government and expansion of the powers of state and local governments.

He is, both on and off the bench, one of the more reserved of the justices, giving few media interviews and saying even less during trials. In fact, from 2006 to 2013, Thomas didn’t utter one word while on the bench, preferring to listen to the case and have his fellow justices ask the questions. He broke his silence only to make a joke about how having a Yale law degree is proof of incompetence.