I began my governmental career in March 1977 when then St. Louis Mayor John Poelker appointed me to the Community Development Agency Commission. I was 28 years old. My governmental service officially ended January 27, 2020 when Missouri Governor Mike Parson appointed Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge to replace me as a member of the Missouri State of Education, representing the 1st Congressional District.
I would like to commend Parson on an excellent choice and state Senator Brian Williams for recommending her to the governor and to offer my sincere thanks to Pamela for her willingness to bring her experience and exceptional skills to this most essential of public responsibilities.
There is a long naval tradition that when an officer is retiring, he requests permission to leave the ship for the last time. This is really a changing of the guard ceremony that also includes a review of his service. Consider this commentary a review of my service record and a final log entry on my formal governmental service. I also hope to provide perspective for the emerging generation of black leaders.
In four decades of government service I have been a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, the executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, chief of staff and deputy mayor for Development for St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone, and senior policy advisor to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
I would like to express my profound gratitude to the people who voted for me or hired me and to the black community whose confidence in me and support of me made my career possible. During that entire period, I was always clear about my mission: to represent and advance the political interest of the black community. That didn’t mean I ignored the interest of the region’s general population, just that I endeavored to ensure that the region’s interest included the interest of the black community.
Given the institutional and cultural nature of St. Louis, representing the interest of the black community was a struggle you had to be willing and able to engage every day. When you’re fighting every day, that’s called war. I was okay with going to war every day. In fact, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I also understood and accepted the rules of engagement: you have what you can take; you keep what you can hold.
When you’re at war, people fall into two categories: they’re either allies or adversaries. If you’re a black politician, all your allies aren’t necessarily African-American and all your adversaries aren’t necessarily white. You learn that the answer to a black question is not necessarily African-American, and you would are well advised to take former Congressman Bill Clay’s advice – “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” – to heart.
As I reflect on those 40-plus years, I can truthfully say I have no regrets. I got the opportunity to do with my life exactly what I wanted. But no regrets is not the same thing as no disappointments.
I think of politics as a team sport, and I consider a professional politician like a professional athlete in a team sport. In professional team sports, no matter how stellar the career of any individual player, all players are ultimately judged by the success of their team. This is especially true of star players. It’s difficult to proclaim your greatness as a player when the teams on which you play are chronically losing.
When you’re a professional politician, it means you are a professional leader. That fact makes you the star of the team you on which you play, which means the success of the team rests primarily on your shoulders.
When I look at the condition of the black community at the beginning of my political career and compare it to the condition of the black community as I clear out my locker, I feel like Ezekiel looking at a valley of dry bones. Like him, I can’t answer the question: will these bones live? There are no championship banners hanging from our rafters. Simply put, by my standards, I failed you.
I could say in my defense that I did my job. Look at my record. I fought the good fight, I kept the faith, I tried to make a difference. To that excuse, I’m reminded of Yoda’s instruction to a young Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars: “do or do not, there is no try.”
What lessons did I learn on this journey that I would offer to those who would choose this road?
First, you will always have enemies. Your enemies will be dangerous and relentless. So remember the last instruction the referee gives to fighters: “protect yourself at all times.”
Secondly, when fighting for justice stay ever mindful of Thucydides‘ admonishment in The Melian Dialogue: “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." Stay strong.
And from Niccolo Machiavelli: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
Finally, know who came before you and what we did, because in that history we will leave you our most valuable lessons: not our accomplishments but our failures. Study what we did, what we got wrong and why we got it wrong. In studying our mistakes, you will increase the chances for your success.
As Yoda told a much older, wiser and more chastened Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, “Failure is the true teacher.”
Permission to go ashore.