Dr. Boyce: The Lessons of Kwame Kilpatrick

The Michigan parole board agreed on Friday to release former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick from prison.  Kilpatrick had spent more than a year behind bars after violating the terms of his probation.  He is set to be out no earlier than July 24, according to a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The decision to release Kilpatrick had been withheld for a month after the chairman of the parole board stated that he wanted time to fully understand the federal corruption charges pending against Kilpatrick.  Those being charged with felonies are not usually granted parole.

The messy legal situation for Kwame Kilpatrick began in 2008, when he covered up an extramarital affair with his chief of staff.  He went to prison in 2010 after being accused by a judge of misleading the authorities and not fully revealing the extent of his financial holdings.  He is required to pay one million dollars in restitution to the city of Detroit for his misdeeds.

When I consider the case of Kwame Kilpatrick, my mind goes back to 2008, when I served as a speaker at the National Black Law Student Association conference, being held in Detroit that year.  Then-Mayor Kilpatrick, Harvard University Professor Charles Ogletree, and Princeton University Professor Eddie Glaude were also set to appear.  The event took place right as the initial corruption charges against Kilpatrick began to unfold, with the Detroit mayor suddenly backing out of the event at the last minute. There was a disturbing aura surrounding the event, and like a Harry Potter film (where people are afraid to say the name of Harry’s frightening enemy), nearly everyone at the event hesitated to mention the name “Kwame Kilpatrick.”  He’d effectively become the big black elephant in the middle of the room.

Since that time, we’ve watched Kilpatrick’s career collapse and burn like the twin towers of 9/11.  Saddest about Kilpatrick is that he was simply a man trying to fill shoes that he was too young and immature to handle.   Rather than understanding that leadership is actually a form of service, Kilpatrick seemed to think that leadership is about bolstering one’s own ego and enjoying the spoils of power.  While I respected the political energy of the nation’s first “hip-hop mayor,” I saw just a little too much swag and overconfidence, which has been the downfall of far too many powerful men.

Kilpatrick’s story presents a cautionary tale for young people who are hungry for power and prestige.  Sometimes getting what you want at an early age can be incredibly unhealthy and create complications which serve to undermine the stability of your spirit.  Those who are the most celebrated and connected in America can also be the most corrupt and dysfunctional, which can be easily overlooked by those who are simply excited to be around so-called “important” people.  Kwame felt important, and so did many of his friends.  Now, most of their lives are ruined.

I’m sure Kwame can’t sleep at night, and his desire to run with the rich and powerful has made his life more complex than he’d ever expected.  He also didn’t seem ready to bear the weight of the crown he’d chosen to wear.  So, when I look at Kwame’s life, I actually feel sorry for him, because ambitious men are trained to chase things that glitter, even at the expense of their own peace of mind.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition, please visit YourBlackWorld.com.


  • Uplifted

    Well said.  It’s unfortunate when men work so hard to get to the top and then implode.  However, no matter how many times it happens, it always happens again.