Sinking under a host of socioeconomic problems and still in mourning after the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, the African-American community is in deep pain. It finds itself directionless, losing ground and lacking the world-class leadership it needs to right itself.
In other words: Black America is in desperate need of a hero. Friday afternoon, a hero returned.
In an emotional, see-saw speech, former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums announced to a deliriously happy crowd of 500 that next year he will run for mayor of Oakland.
The announcement was a dramatic turnabout, because he mounted the podium apparently intending to say "no."
A grassroots movement had sprung up to draft him, collecting 8,000 signatures using only volunteer labor. But Dellums, the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle and mentor to anti-war U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, has been working for the past few years as a well-paid Washington lobbyist. Though he looks like a fit man of 50, he is actually nearly 70 years old.
In other words, he is of retirement age and finally earning some money. No one could fairly begrudge him the chance to spend his twilight years unburdened by all the problems of urban America. Oakland has some of the highest crime and murder rates in America. Its public schools are crumbling and in receivership. The city council often appears dysfunctional and largely in the pocket of big developers. No one in his right mind would willingly take on the challenge of turning around this town.
Rumors had begun circulating earlier in the week that Dellums was going to attend the culmination of the signature-gathering, thank the volunteers and then decline to run. I was not surprised, as Dellums stood before the expectant crowd, when he began working through reasons that he might not seek the office.
But as the crowd screamed, stomped, chanted and wept, the old lion began talking himself into making a very different announcement.
He began to speculate about the impact of Oakland as a model city, providing health coverage for all its residents, and setting an example for the nation. The crowd began cheering.
He talked about the need to fix the schools, preserve economic diversity in the gentrifying city and to embrace the young men hanging on street corners. The applause was overwhelming, thunderous. Black women were weeping in the aisles.
Dellums looked out into the crowd, surveying the sea of tearful, hopeful faces. "Like a jazz player, I honestly didn't know what I was going to say today, how this song was going to end until the very last note," he said. "But I can see your pain."
He hesitated, looked at his wife. Then he said: "And if Ron Dellums running for mayor will bring you some hope ... then let's get on with it." Bedlam.
Whether the on-stage decision-making was authentic or just high theater, it was a powerful and cathartic drama for all who witnessed it. It is the first sign of hope in Black America in a very, very long time. The cries of joy and relief and hope that swept the room were testimony to the pent-up need for heroic leadership in times like these.
Cynics will say that we have been down this road before, with promising black mayors disappointing their urban constituents. Oakland, in particular, has suffered from eight years of a celebrity mayor named Jerry Brown, who did little to help the poor and much to aid the developers.
Furthermore, Dellums' announcement essentially sinks the very worthy candidacies of progressives Greg Hodge and Nancy Nadel -- both of whom have labored in the local vineyards for years, while Dellums grew rich inside the Beltway.
But Black America needed someone larger than life to step up to the plate -- right now. As one man said, "Well, we couldn't save New Orleans. But maybe we can save Oakland."
I believe that the candidacy of Dellums is a seminal event in a post-Katrina resurgence of progressive Black politics. Oakland will emerge as a laboratory for a very different kind of social policy than we have seen in this country for a very long time. His tenure will give ample room and space to further groom a new crop of leaders, who can take up the cause upon his retirement.
And I believe this, not just because of the kind of person Dellums is.
I believe it is true because of the kind of people Oaklanders are.
With the prospect of City Hall on the side of the people, and not just the big-money players, this town has a fighting chance again. And, through Oakland's bright example, so do we all.
Van Jones, a national co-coordinator of ColorOfChange.org, is a husband, father and activist in Oakland.
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle