When Julian Bond and Phyllis Leffler began their oral history project on black leadership, many of the people they interviewed said, “Well, where are the black leaders? King is gone and no one has come to take his shoes.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was such an obvious symbol, Leffler said, that people were looking for another towering figure. “People put him on a pedestal, venerated him. But that can lead you to not recognize other kinds of leadership in our midst.”
At the University of Virginia, she and Bond, a civil rights icon who was on the faculty with her, spent years interviewing more than 50 people for “Explorations in Black Leadership.” They videotaped those conversations with civil rights leaders, members of Congress, poets, university presidents, journalists, a choreographer, a Supreme Court justice.
Along the way, in those conversations that turned into a book and a Web site, were some surprising memories, some insights, some troubling questions. Bond remembers listening to one man talk about his brother’s addiction and wondering, “What happened? What happened? And there really was no answer to that question: Why is one brother a tremendous success, and the other a crack addict?”
Leffler was moved by the idealism she heard, over and over, from so many fields.”You have leaders in the church, leaders in education, leaders in the law, who have this call to service, this very, very powerful mission; they often talk about the responsibility they have to serve others.”
Bond was delighted by Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he met at a book party. “I jumped on the justice, tied him down and I got him” to take part in the oral history project, he said. Thomas was gracious, talkative and eager to share, without conceit.
He also enjoyed talking with his old friend (and onetime rival), U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “He defeated me when I ran for Congress,” Bond said, and added jokingly, since Lewis has served since 1987, ” – or else I’d be in Congress now.”
Many of the people talked about King, sharing their thoughts on his influence, their memories of time spent with him, and moments when they took part in protests he planned. Freeman Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, remembered how he felt as a young boy marching in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and how terrified he was when he was put in jail for the protest, comforting others by reading the Bible aloud.
Leffler hopes the videos, Web site and book will offer a more nuanced and more diverse idea of leadership, one that people will look to for inspiration. Some messages kept coming back, she said, such as a desire to draw from the warmth and commitment of the black schools of the segregation era and create those kinds of communities in today’s schools. And many people talked about helping others become leaders, even as they worked toward their own success. “Lift as you climb,” they said. “Always lift as you climb.”