Making the Case for Charismatic Leadership: The Black Militant



It’s no secret that, over the years, a hierarchy within Black leadership has developed based on proximity to mainstream whiteness. Radical, Black movement is often drowned out by respectable, Black assimilation. Without the black militant, a variety of charismatic leadership that was most prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s, revolutionary struggle would be swallowed whole by the illusion of inclusion and compromised reform. Just as the Black, public intellectual has a role in collectives of charismatic leadership, so, too, does the Black militant. Black, public intellectuals put their minds on the task of struggle. Black militants put their lives on the line for it. It is only through these appropriately intense responses to instances of injustice that Black folks are reminded of the urgency to get free, that oppression is not something they have to accept as status quo. It’s the role of the Black militant to make the Black opposition to white hegemony felt as opposed to just heard or read. Though portrayed as isolated and characterized as extremism, Black militancy has and will continue to weave its way through our pursuit of freedom, pushing the envelope and holding us accountable for what we accept and what we don’t. The Black Liberation Army, borne of the necessity to compartmentalize and fund Black Panther Party activity, was, essentially, a Black, revolutionary militia that decentralized its attacks on white supremacist institutions in order to protect its anonymity. The BLA employed guerilla warfare as a strategy and its members put their lives where the conscious community’s mouths were. On May 19, 1971, the BLA declared war on systemic oppression when it opened fire on law enforcement agents who were guarding the Panther 21 trial proceedings. Later, the collective made sure the public knew it was responsible for the attack, saying “The armed goons of the racist government will again meet the guns of oppressed third world people as long as they occupy our community and murder our brothers and sisters in the name of American law and order.” The army continued its attacks and its message remained the same, but, in 1973, the arrest of Assata Shakur and the high profile trial that ensued, as a result, compromised the anonymity the Black Liberation Army kept at its core.


Accused of, charged with, and eventually (in 1977) convicted of first degree murder, Assata became a shining symbol for Black militancy. Two years later, she escaped from the prison at which she was sentenced to life, sending the message to millions that Black agency is real and possible; that the United States government has only the power we allow it. A movement unfolded and “Assata Is Welcome Here” posters could be found in many of the cities in which law enforcement hunted for her. Her courage and defiance were enough to inspire violently oppressed communities to offer her refuge no matter the consequences. Later, conversations around Assata’s heroism were reduced to questions surrounding her guilt. Without sustained mass support, Assata’s militancy was left to legend.


Fast forward to 2016. Korryn Gaines is pulled over in a vehicle that boasts a cardboard license plate reading “Any government official who compromises this pursuit of happiness and right to travel, will be held criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right to freedom.” During the stop, she refused to leave her car when the cop who detained her demanded it. Her defiance led to her arrest and torture at the jail in which she was held in Baltimore, but she remained committed to her principles. After being charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and littering, she refused to acknowledge the government’s authority and didn’t show up in court. The bench warrant issued as a result was the justification law enforcement used for her murder. On August 1, 2016, police officers bombarded Korryn’s apartment under the guise of serving the warrant. Korryn didn’t fold, instead filming and broadcasting the standoff between herself and the Baltimore police. They ran into Korryn’s apartment shooting, killing her instantly and injuring her five year old son. The video footage Korryn caught before dying gave the public a taste of how minor “infractions” can lead to serious threats to the well being of Black folks.


While Assata and Korryn were the charismatic leaders the African diasporic community needed to push its collective mindset toward one of individual agency, collective autonomy, necessary sacrifice, and the true manifestation of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary,” Black folks, in general, were not the supportive community they deserved. There was no movement infrastructure to support their actions. There was no sustained resistance to hold the government accountable for its response to their self determination. In fact, both Assata and Korryn were attacked and, eventually, abandoned by the broader Black community. Still, the diaspora benefited from their militancy.


Because of Assata, conversations about police brutality, excessive force, and abuse of power intensified. People better understood the potential for political alliance between Cuba and Black Americans, specifically. Because of Korryn, conversations about oppression induced trauma, the intersections of poverty and “criminality”, and the sacrifices Black mothers make resurfaced. The Black Militant is a necessary piece of the charismatic leadership puzzle. Most importantly, through the demonstrated resistance of both women, people were exposed to the idea that the American government is not all powerful and were given hope for a future in which Black autonomy is tangible. Though largely unappreciated, folks who fit this role propel Black movement work forward by leaps and bounds, making the impossible seem possible and setting the standard for courage among those who task themselves with revolutionary struggle.