The Conscience of Conservative Blacks: Turning Ideas into Action

Published January 1, 2005

Too often, good ideas are found or proposed at a conference, but they do not go anywhere. There are good speeches, great sermons, and wonderful food and camaraderie, and people are all hooped up–but only for a day or two. And then usually they go their separate ways, maybe they continue to read and stay connected, but the moment is lost and the idea that once seemed so exciting is lost.

What is lost is more than just a promising idea. People who watch this happen say, “Why did you go out there and talk about those things and share those ideas? Nobody’s really going to do anything. Nothing will change.” The whole point of meetings like this one is thrown into question. The perception is created that causing change is too hard, too much of an uphill battle. Those who seek change find themselves alone.

Thankfully, exceptional men are among us. Even when the founders and the people who attended the original meeting of The New Coalition in San Francisco in 1980 decided to go their separate ways and set down the torch, so to speak, Lee Walker decided to pick up that torch and keep those ideas and the dream of creating a real social movement alive. I want to thank Lee for doing so, and I think he deserves a round of applause from everyone here.

How Ideas Spread

Many years ago, I felt I was the only black person in Chicago who felt government programs were not working. “Am I crazy?” I thought. “Is everybody in Chicago walking around with blinders on? Does nobody else see that these programs are not working? It is time for a change. Somebody has to take these ideas on their back if we are ever going to see any difference.”

And then I overheard a man talking sense on these issues, and I thought, “Finally, there’s someone else who sees what I see.” One thing led to another, and soon I was involved with Lee Walker in the founding of The New Coalition here in Chicago.

I remember one time Lee called me and said, “Bruce, I want you to come over to the Knickerbocker Hotel. I have a young man that I want you to meet. I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say.” I didn’t know this man from Jones. We met and talked–there could not have been more than seven of us in a hotel room, exchanging ideas. That young man was Newt Gingrich, before he was anybody. It was an exciting exchange of ideas.

There was another time when Lee said, “Bruce, let’s go to Washington, DC and talk about what is new in domestic policy and economic development.” He knew that as a business person, my main interest was economic development and job creation, and that I felt current policies were failing to accomplish anything positive.

Model Cities, the main economic development program at the time, was a joke. All these government programs were a joke, they were not making a difference at the grassroots level, and I knew that. Anybody with common sense could tell that they were not working. But government officials and various advocates refused to admit they were not working, and they were not searching for new ideas.

Because the ideas Lee introduced me to over the years rang true with me, I was moved to action. I was not the only one. Thousands of people have heard Lee Walker on radio or read his articles in Crain’s Chicago Business, the Defender, the New Coalition’s newsletter, News & Views, or elsewhere and either changed their minds or were moved to action.

People want substance. They want a foundation. They want to know that somebody they can trust has taken the time to critically review, and not just passively accept, ideas and opinions that have been passed down through the ages.

The Power of Ideas

The people who have joined The New Coalition are open and receptive to new ideas. We are not going to blindly accept ideas based on who says them or just because they came from a particular direction. We want to be true, we want to be thoughtful, we want to reach our own conclusions about what needs to be done.

Ideas can be incredibly powerful. We heard earlier today about the real Ronald Reagan, the Reagan we didn’t know, who believed strongly in the power of ideas and of sharing those ideas, not necessarily with people on the Hill or in Congress, but with people throughout society and around the world. Reagan showed us the awesome power of one man’s imagination to shape and form the way millions of people think, genuinely changing the world for the better.

There is power in ideas. There is power in imagination. There is power in free thinking. And each one of us is free to choose among competing ideas, and those ideas must ring true. Not can, not possibly, but must. When you hear the truth, you know what it is, and it nags you from a deep core in your being. That there is something here of substance, something here that is divine, and it’s an opportunity for me to accept or reject. It is my choice, but I know that there is some meat on these bones.

The black community is more open to adopting and acting on new ideas than ever before. It is better educated, and there are more black professionals than ever before. It is more geographically dispersed. The passage of time has dimmed or erased some of the bad memories of the past. Black leadership and sources of information and opinion are becoming more diverse, just as they are in the white community.

All this means now is a more promising time for new ideas to gain ground in the black community than ever before. People are listening, learning, and ready to act on ideas that are different from those their parents believed or expressed by aging and increasingly irrelevant civil rights leaders.

Ideas in Action

Last night, an award was given to a great American, Virginia Walden Ford, president of DC Parents for School Choice. As she said during her acceptance speech, the award was actually a recognition of a collaboration or partnership of people who shared a vision and worked hard and long to turn it into action. That effort, amazingly enough, took place right in the heart of the federal government, in Washington, DC.

The victory in Washington, DC for school choice is a model for turning ideas into social movements, and then into social change. People in that community decided. It was debated and written about and talked about from a lot of angles, but when the time came for the idea to become action, the real force for change came not from think tanks or politicians but from real parents, people on the street, the people who believed in school choice because of their care and their love for their children, their families, and their neighborhoods. Because they had the force of ideas on their side, they were able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Here’s another example of ideas in action. I just came back from a trip to Nashville, Tennessee. My daughter, who is graduating from St. Ignatius College Prep, here in Chicago, is looking at attending the historic Fisk University in Nashville, and a dual degree program with Vanderbilt. I was in Nashville inspecting the university, reading the newspapers and hearing the news. I heard a story about two talk radio show hosts, one white and one black, who almost single-handedly stopped the state government from raising taxes.

I often hear people say no one really listens to small radio talk shows, that they cannot really change things. But these two journalists heard the talk about the government increasing taxes to spend on schools and other government programs and said, “Not on my watch. It is not going to happen. We do not need it, we haven’t done what we can do to reduce wasteful spending, it is not going to happen.” They stood up and took their message to the street and explained it every day on a talk radio station in Tennessee. And when the time came for legislators to vote, when everyone thought the deal was done, that tax hike did not pass. These young men, black and white conservative men of principle, on a talk radio station in Tennessee, are given credit for holding the line on those taxes.

What happened in Washington, DC and Tennessee needs to be repeated over and over again if we wish to see our ideas translated into action. We need to convey our ideas to individuals and organizations that can start brush fires of discussion and debate leading to grassroots social movements calling for reforms, and only then will we see the political changes needed to bring about real changes in people’s lives. It is about faith in action. We’ve seen demonstrated in Washington, DC and many other places that new partnerships and new coalitions can achieve results in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition.

Advice for the Conservative Movement

A commentator last night said, “The intellectual battle has been won.” In some ways it has, but we know there is still a lot of work to do. We still must act. We must put faith and action together, and make the difference in all of our communities.

In the school choice arena, great victories have been achieved in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Colorado, and Florida. These victories were achieved because new partnerships came together, people who might have walked past each other are stopping and taking the time to ask what they can do to help make change. That is how ideas spread and turn into action. That is how intellectual victories become political change.

Too often, policy guys simply want to pass their papers back and forth. “I will give you my paper; you give me your paper. You read mine and comment on it, and I will read yours.” And we believe sometimes, because we are passing these around in the halls of academia, that the people on the street corner wouldn’t understand it, it is over their heads, so we exclude them from the debate.

Obviously, this is mistaken. Do not wear blinders and believe the people who you have been sharing your papers with for the last 20 years are the only people who care about the ideas or matter in the debate. There are many other people who care about these ideas, people who are more likely to become active than your fellow researchers. Unless your ideas are communicated to them they will never become active, never result in a change in public policy.

I suggest that you use The New Coalition and groups similar to it to move your ideas to people who can turn ideas into action. Invite different people into your institutions and into your policy discussions. Ask them what they think about your papers. It may be a mother from DC who gives you the most salient advice on the legitimacy of your ideas, the best way to express them, and the actions that can be taken to make them work. That mother could ignite the brush fire and build the new coalitions, partnerships, and collaborations that success requires.

It is not enough to have an idea; we need to help other people see our idea. To take action, we must take our message to the people. New information technologies give us an opportunity to create what I call a “grassroots grapevine.” Thanks to email, the Internet, small radio stations, and broadband dispersion we can reach new audiences more effectively and less expensively than ever before.


People–black and white–are ready to hear the truth. They are frustrated by the lack of diversity of ideas in the media choices they have, and they are exercising their freedom of choice and investing their time to go online and search out these ideas and share them with their friends.

Thanks to new technologies, we can have a faster change in the next three years than we have seen in the last 20. Conservative ideas and philosophies can spread like a brush fire, creating real social movements, and change will happen.

So my advice to you is to be creative, establish and work with new coalitions, and celebrate diversity and the exchange of ideas. Do these things, and they will bear fruits and action in our society.

Thank you.

Bruce Montgomery is a journalist and author, graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Journalism with a M.A. in history from Dartmouth University and a certificate in technology from the University of Chicago.