For the past half century, Julian Bond has been a legendary force on the frontlines fighting for the rights of the underserved and marginalized in American society. After graduating from high school in Pennsylvania, he made the decision to attend prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. There, he became one of eight students to participate in the only class ever taught by civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Shortly thereafter, he left Morehouse to become involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he worked feverishly as their communications director to assist in organizing voter registration drives and lead student protests against segregation throughout the South.
In 1968, Bond became the first African American to be nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, but he was too young to helm the post. Throughout the next four decades, he would serve in the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate, co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, become chairman of the NAACP, and teach history courses at high profile universities in the United States. Ultimately, all of these experiences in leadership positions led him to collaborate with historian Phyllis Leffler on a new book entitled: Black Leaders on Leadership: Conversations with Julian Bond. This book is a collection of oral interviews conducted by Bond and Leffler with many influential African American leaders from the past and present.
We sat down with Bond to discuss his new book and the current state of Black leadership.
EBONY: What was the inspiration behind the idea to create an in-depth book based around Black leadership?
Julian Bond:Well first, let me tell you that the idea for this book wasn’t my own. It was an idea from my colleague Phyllis Leffler. She was a colleague of mine in the history department at the University of Virginia. She had this idea, and initially, we were going to focus this idea on people in Virginia. We focused on well-known people in Virginia, and then we decided to broaden it, and it expanded to fifty-one people. One of those people was me, but all of the other people are people I interviewed. We were trying to find out how did these leadership figures and people who were famous across various fields become the figures that they became, and what was it in their lives that made them who they are. We asked them pretty much all the same questions. Almost every time the questions would wander away because each person was different. So – we interviewed fifty-one people and videotaped each one of them, and Phyllis Leffler wrote a book from these interviews. She is as much a part of this, if not more, than I am.
EBONY: What was your and Professor Leffler’s process in choosing the numerous figures that you’ve interviewed for this book, and how long did it take for everything to materialize?
JB:It took us fourteen years. We picked people who were considered leadership figures. And you know it’s funny; almost every one of them said, “Oh. I’m not a leader.” Most of them were names of people that people would say that he or she is a leader. They’re leaders in their professions and leaders in what they do. We were curious about how they became people in leadership positions. We were able to get people like Clarence Thomas, Vernon Jordan, and we have people whose names you’ve heard of and names that you may not have heard of before. The book has a list of all the names. The paperback and hardback versions of the book have these barcodes that you scan with your phone, and you can see the actual interviews. People would have to download an app called the QR reader, and they’ll be able to see each of the interviews while reading the book. It’s very interactive.
EBONY: When you were interviewing these luminaries, do you believe the information that you were able to extract from them could be useful for present and future leaders?
JB:Yes, I think so because not all of them have everything in common, but many of them do have elements of their lives that are the same. For example, a large number of them were members of the Boy Scouts. Now, when I was a kid, I was a Cub Scout. I never went beyond a Cub Scout. I never would’ve thought that young Black people were active in the scouts. I never saw anyone who was a Black Boy Scout beyond the Cub Scouts. For the men, each of them said that the Boy Scouts provided them with wonderful leadership training. They learned how to run meetings and organize themselves. I never thought about the Boy Scouts in that way. It was a real benefit for these guys. It’s the kind of thing that when you’re going through it, you don’t think I’m going to be a leader because of this, but later on, you look back on it, and you can say that you’re a leader because of that experience.
EBONY: What were some of the other similarities in the stories from the leaders you interviewed?
JB:Many of them had a teacher; a woman or man that guided them when they were in school. Many of them had that type of person that made them question things and pushed them in one way or another. Some of them were active in student government when they were in school. They were either a student body president or vice president or active in some kind of student organization. From those experiences, they developed leadership training, which at the time; they didn’t realize they were gathering this information.But looking back on it, they realized it was one of their teachers that made them think about being in a leadership position.
EBONY: What are some interesting background stories that happened while you were putting this book together?
JB:Well, I should tell you that Professor Leffler, because we were doing this on our own mostly with the equipment from the University of Virginia, felt free enough to stop the interviews and tell me to ask this question or that question. She was a contributor to this as much as I was. We asked everybody the same questions, but every now and then she would interject and tell me to ask different questions during the course of the interview. With some of the people, we were able to get them because they came to the University of Virginia to make a speech. Amiri Baraka came to the University of Virginia to give a speech, so we asked him if he would participate in this study, and he said yes. With some of them, we went to see them. We found out that if you interview a member of Congress, he or she has access to a television studio. We picked out members from the Congressional Black Caucus and asked them if they would reserve the theater and cameras for us and they said yes. So – we were able to get them that way, or we went to somebody’s office or workplace to interview them.
EBONY: Based on your experience of rising to esteemed positions of leadership, what do you believe needs to be developed in communities of color to cultivate future leaders?
JB:I think it takes people who have a widespread series of experiences to develop future leaders. It takes people who aren’t afraid to challenge and move forward. I can say that these people I interviewed laid out a path to leadership because they’re so different. They had similar but very different experiences, too. They were willing to reach out for something new and to take risks, and it made them into the people they turned out to be.
EBONY: What are your thoughts on the current state of Black leadership in the movement taking place after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner?
JB:Well, it’s interesting to me because some of the critiques of this movement have been that they have no leaders. But of course, they have to have leaders. People don’t just show up and lie down in the middle of the street some place out of nothing. Somebody said meet me there, let’s get together, and let’s do this thing. The interesting thing is that we don’t know who all of the leaders of these groups are, but we know that they’re out there, and we know a new group of leadership is being created. It shows you that leadership can come from anywhere. You don’t have to be a certain type of person or have a certain type of education to be a leader. You just have to be willing to throw yourself into the fight. That’s all it takes.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @iamchriswms.