This year's Black History Month should be the last. Let us end this tiresome ritual of parading our noble and precious African-American peacemakers, writers, scientists and trailblazers. It is but an annual sedative masking the plethora of social, economic and political diseases threatening to extinguish urban America.
How easy it is to extol the virtues of a Carter G. Woodson or a Vernon Johns while ignoring the challenges inherent in confronting the institutional machinery that manufactures our malignant social ills. We miss the point of a Sojourner Truth, a Malcolm X or a Fanny Lou Hamer when we simply set aside the shortest month of the year to sing their praises instead of continuing their valiant and exemplary labors.
Today, the work of those visionaries is visibly absent from the agendas of the current inbred and insular African-American leadership. This group sustains its irrelevant prominence by refusing to cultivate new, young leaders and by continually applauding glorious moments of yesteryear.
The "old guard" of civil rights enjoys economic and political links to institutions that do not have the welfare of urban America at heart. These now-affluent men have blended themselves into the "white establishment" they vilified 30 years ago. In order to gain positions of power, they have separated themselves physically and economically from those who need their help the most.
Meanwhile, urban America crumbles under the incessant attacks of joblessness, violence and valueless prescriptions.
The most visible African-American leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, continue to force a black middle-class agenda onto the front burners of America's consciousness. But as modern-day overseers -- and I use the term deliberately -- these unprincipled men shroud themselves in whatever ideologies best suit their personal agendas. They have tirelessly charted courses over the past 30 years that have produced fruitful results for them and their class interests.
It is criminal for this opportunistic brand of leadership to continue to masquerade as the sole legitimate voice of those who are hamstrung by a system of injustice and inequality.
African-Americans are not the only victims. Latinos, along with other immigrant populations, have been rendered impotent by African-Americans who presume to speak for all minorities. These communities need voices who will articulate immigration issues, bilingual education needs and the impact of their burgeoning population on the future course of America.
The victims of this betrayal of leadership live in some of the worst neighborhoods in America. They have begun to focus some of their anger on those who have righteously occupied America's pulpits, podiums and panels on their behalf. The profound rage of these poor and oppressed citizens shows they have been totally ignored and shamelessly compromised by "leaders" who do not have their best interests at heart.
If we are allowed to broaden the debate on these issues, to add the voices of these doubly betrayed citizens, we will discover a powerful activist voice. This new spirit will refuse to betray the dignity of its mission by slithering up through the halls of power. There will be no more begging for handouts or putting the onus on others to rectify America's collective condition.
Those who cloak their personal political survival and class self-interest with rhetoric about "serving my people" will continue to abandon and misrepresent the true feelings and concerns of the urban poor. In what century will we begin to disabuse ourselves of the infantile and archaic notion that only members of the black middle class are capable of speaking for those who are victims of what has gone wrong in our society?
Black History Month is not the cause of these deep and myriad problems. Oppression, motivated by race and money, is. But Black History Month has become a political facade, a mere prop for a political class that must be replaced if the quest for civil and human rights in the next millennium is to write any history worth reading.
Let us use every day and every month of every year to highlight, promote and seek counsel from those who are operating in the true spirit of our courageous historic figures. Let us challenge ourselves to carry out the full mission laid before us by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey and countless others.
And let us bury this celebratory, pacifying gimmick of Black History Month, which helps keep slavery a 20th-century reality.
Carl Upchurch is executive director of the Council for Urban Peace and Justice in Granville, Ohio.