Malcolm X Warned Us about the Pitfalls of Black Celebrities as LeadersRoundup
tags: Cold War, African American history, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, celebrity, Malcolm X, HUAC
Kyle T. Mays is an assistant professor in the department of African American studies, American Indian studies and history at UCLA.
After his recent NBA championship win, LeBron James noted that although he was happy to win, he wanted to keep “the main thing the main thing,” referring to the need to remain committed to the fight for social justice. Former president Barack Obama tweeted his admiration of this victory and praised James for being a leader “in the public arena fighting for education, social justice, and democracy.”
More recently, rapper turned movie star Ice Cube said he was open to working with both the Trump-Pence and Biden-Harris camps to devise a plan to improve Black Americans’ economic conditions. His apparent openness to working with Trump ignited much controversy when Trump’s team tweeted how proud they were to be working with Cube. Later, rapper 50 Cent announced he was backing Trump to avoid a marginal tax rate increase under a Biden plan.
These cases illuminate how, while it can be admirable when celebrities use their wealth and platform to direct people’s attention to social and political issues, the media’s coverage and politicians’ amplification of Black celebrities can give a skewed impression. Most Black people are not celebrities, and the concerns of ordinary people are often at odds with those of such spokespeople.
The experiences of Jackie Robinson during the Red Scare and McCarthyism revealed the limits of the Black celebrity class. Robinson was a national hero for integrating Major League Baseball in 1947. He dealt with anti-Black racism on and off the field, and he had yet to amass the wealth he deserved. Nevertheless, because he helped to integrate America’s pastime, he was perhaps the most well-known Black celebrity at the time.
In 1949, Alvin Stokes, a Black investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), called Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to ask Robinson to speak in front of HUAC. Stokes and HUAC selected Robinson, a staunch anti-communist, because the ballplayer would be the best Black representative to counter another Black celebrity: Paul Robeson.
Robeson, who also worked for an end to anti-Black racism and class exploitation, argued that Black people might consider looking elsewhere for freedom, outside of an oppressive United States. Stokes believed that if Black celebrities like Robinson spoke out against communism, they could demonstrate that the Black community’s loyalty was to the United States — a perception he believed was critical for ensuring full citizenship for Black Americans.
Robinson’s speech showed why Black celebrities could falter as social justice leaders. While some might be able to use their celebrity to advocate for the most vulnerable, other celebrities might be manipulated or pressed to stand for political positions that could undermine the majority of Black Americans’ political interests. Their positions might also be taken as representative of the sentiments of the Black community, even when their experiences were very different from the majority’s.
Black nationalist Malcolm X voiced concern about this tendency in 1963, when he participated in a conversation with sociologist John Leggett and Herman Blake, an African American and at the time a sociology teaching assistant. Leggett argued that many Black leaders consistently betrayed Black struggles for justice, citing among them Rep. William L. Dawson of Chicago. Malcolm X agreed but argued that the problem was rooted in what it took to become a Black leader in a racist country, and the implications of what one’s connection to a racist system does to one’s political views and theory of social change.
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