With his historic win in Georgia to become the state’s first Black senator, the Rev. Raphael Warnock reinforced a narrative building over the past few years: A new generation of leaders has emerged from the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.
Some civil rights legends attended HBCUs in part because they were not permitted to attend most majority-white universities. And several have died recently: the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C. T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis, all significant figures in the history of the civil rights movement.
At the same time, a new surge of racial unrest, peaking last summer after the police killing of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street, elevated new leaders to respond to the crisis.
As a result, America learned that many of the mayors of major cities, like Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota, were HBCU graduates. Black clergy speaking forcefully on the events were often HBCU grads.
Now, we will watch an HBCU grad become the first woman vice president when Kamala Harris is sworn in this week at her inauguration along with President-elect Joe Biden.
The HBCU community often cites statistics showing that HBCUs, which represent only 3 percent of all institutions of higher education, produce a disproportionately large share of Black graduates.
That leads, of course, to disproportionate numbers of HBCU graduates who serve in professional positions.
We will watch an HBCU grad become the first woman vice president when Kamala Harris is sworn in this week at her inauguration along with President-elect Joe Biden.
Despite narratives predicting the demise of these storied schools due to declining enrollments, infrastructure needs and lack of philanthropic investment, HBCUs are resilient institutions that play a role in building women and men who are prepared to lead the nation.
In times like these, HBCUs are uniquely equipped to train new leaders for a nation grappling with a pandemic of racism. There are some who question whether people who attended majority-Black institutions can lead a diverse nation dealing with concerns about race, assuming that makes them less prepared for the real world.
Yet that question is never asked of those attending just as homogeneous predominantly white universities — often wealthy, brand-name schools whose graduates are presumed able to handle anything simply because they are white and wealthy.
Call it the Jared Kushner syndrome.
This idea was made plain by Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and daughter of Andrew Young — civil rights icon, former ambassador and mayor of Atlanta — while on a panel with her father at Dillard University a few years ago.
Young reminded the audience that gains made in the civil rights movement were led by people who not only attended historically Black colleges, but went to extremely segregated, under-resourced primary schools as well.
Those material deficiencies did not impact the overall quality of the education they received, and played no role in the ability of the students to develop soft skills, or as Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, recently called them, durable skills, like the ability to be flexible and adapt to different situations. (Disclaimer: The Lumina Foundation is among the numerous funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Those skills helped them form coalitions with people they neither lived near, went to school with or went to church with.
This new generation of HBCU leaders, largely members of Generation X and the hip-hop generation, were in college when the names Amadou Diallo, Yusef Hawkins, Abner Louima, the Central Park Five, and Rodney King dominated the headlines.
They were influenced by Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing,” art imitating life. They were in places and spaces where faculty willingly changed lesson plans to address the issues of the day, having a level of freedom to lean in to uncomfortable conversations with students who not only wanted to have those conversations, but needed to have them.
This willingness to lean in and not look away is a foundational feature of HBCUs. At predominantly white institutions, those events of the ’80s and ’90s went unnoticed by most of the campus.
I know. That was my experience at the University of Georgia. Black students found ways on our own to process these events, on a campus where we were mostly invisible unless on the field or the court.
These issues mattered little to those who led the administration and faculty. They weren’t bad people, but their privilege meant that seeing these atrocities was optional.
There is no reason to believe this new group of HBCU leaders will be the last. In the past decade, a new generation of HBCU students has been motivated by a new set of names: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
These are names that have energized today’s students. And while predominantly white campuses are much more sensitive to matters of racial justice and compelled to play active roles in addressing them, the energy at HBCUs is amplified by people working there who look like the students, people who feel these issues as personally as they do.
Today’s HBCU students will benefit from communities that take today’s challenges and help them turn their pain into power to address these concerns and those to come.
Like today’s HBCU grads, who were inspired by civil rights leaders, today’s students will call a new set of names heroes.
They are being shaped by the successes of political and social leaders like Keisha Lance Bottoms, LaToya Cantrell, Randall Woodfin, Chokwe Lumumba, the Rev. William Barber II, the Rev. Freddy Haynes, Cori Bush, Cedrick Richmond and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Most of all, this week, they will witness one of their own, Kamala Harris, become vice president.
Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University in New Orleans, and has been recognized for his research and writings on HBCUs and African American men in college.