100 Black Influencers to Know in 2012

From Melissa Harris-Perry to LeBron James to Benjamin Crump, these 100 people are shaping the future.

Benjamin Crump (via Twitter); Melissa Harris-Perry (Getty); LeBron James (NBA)
Benjamin Crump (via Twitter); Melissa Harris-Perry (Getty); LeBron James (NBA)

(The Root) — One core mission of The Root is to reveal and recognize African Americans who are breaking ground, raising the bar and effecting meaningful change in the world. We do that in many ways throughout the year, but our signature means of recognizing our community’s best and brightest, since 2009, is through The Root 100 annual list of black achievers and influencers, ages 25-45. The Root 100 honorees not only excel in their fields but also are people who use their influence to shape the world and make it a better place. Otherwise, what is all that influence really good for?

It’s in that spirit that we reveal our top-ranked honoree for 2012: scholar, author and MSNBC television-show host Melissa Harris-Perry. “For me, success is when I’m making a contribution and fully engaging all of my talents,” Harris-Perry once said. Evidence of that success over the past year is clear in how the Tulane University political science professor has handled the national platform that came with her new MSNBC news show, Melissa Harris-Perry. She has used it not only to air the typical hot-button issues that feed the cable-news beast, like the latest politician’s gaffe, but also to discuss the tough topics that many would rather not face, like felon voter rights, anti-Muslim bigotry and the way the poor are being ignored and vilified in politics.

Harris-Perry’s approach to success is one that is shared by others on The Root 100 2012 list, all of whom were noted for how they exercised their influence within the past year. Second on the list is Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who is known not only for his Twitter savvy and a fiery platform speech during the 2012 Democratic National Convention but also for saving a neighbor from a burning building in April. It goes without saying that NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, No. 3 on the list, uses his influence in the service of others; but by leading the rights organization to fight voter-suppression tactics and stop-and-frisk policies, as well as taking a stand in support of same-sex marriage, Jealous has shown that he is unafraid to take on controversial causes.

Others who took on controversial causes include civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump (No. 5), who represents the family of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, and columnist Charles M. Blow (No. 16), who received his share of flack for his repeated coverage of Trayvon’s death and its aftermath. Pastor Delman Coates (No. 81) has likewise braved criticism to speak out in support of marriage equality.  

In an election year, it’s especially important to take note of those who represent us and those who affect our lives behind the scenes in politics. Joining Booker in the top 10 on The Root 100 list were Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed (No. 6) and Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx (No. 10) — both active surrogates for President Barack Obama. Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mayor Mia Love (No. 25), who raised the roof at this year’s Republican National Convention, is also noteworthy for her run to become the first black female Republican in Congress. Less publicly known, but still influential, are national African-American-vote director at Obama for America Stefanie Brown (No. 32) and senior communications adviser for Mitt Romney Tara Wall (No. 41).

Among the government officials who made this year’s list are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Kevin Fenton (No. 12), who is fighting the spread of HIV, and the U.S. Education Department’s Russlyn Ali (No. 64), who oversees the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Of course, with reach being a criterion for ranking The Root 100, entertainers and media professionals are well-represented on the list. Most of those whom we selected have not only had a good year professionally but also demonstrated dedication to a cause that betters the world around them, or commitment to using their celebrity for a higher cause. Jay-Z (No. 8), Octavia Spencer (No. 13), John Legend (No. 14), Beyoncé (No. 15) and Kerry Washington (No. 23) are all using their celebrity to help support President Obama’s re-election campaign. Gabrielle Union (No. 22) uses her prominence to raise awareness about breast cancer and rape, while Will.i.am (No. 28) promotes education in science and technology. Jamar Rogers (No. 39) was a finalist on the first 2012 season of NBC’s The Voice, then used his platform as an HIV-positive star to join the CDC’s Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. Frank Ocean (No. 11) stands out for his R&B artistry, as well as for his moving letter to fans, in which he shared that his first love was a man — not an easy step in an industry that still harbors homophobia.