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BOND: Congressman Bishop, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
BISHOP: Thank you very much.
BOND: I want to start with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. Now, you were just seven years old in 1954 when the decision was handed down. Can you remember, did it mean anything to you right then?
BISHOP: I can remember the event. There was a great deal of excitement in our community, in our household and I remember sitting at the dinner table that evening when it came on the 6:00 o'clock news and hearing my parents talk about what it was going to mean for my life and what the challenges were going to be to compete in a non-segregated society and, of course, it was put upon me that I was going to have to run twice as hard and be twice as fast and twice as smart in order to compete, to catch up, because we had been held behind and so that was my mantra.
BOND: So you got a sense, I'm guessing from your parents, that although this meant equality, that you'd have to be better than equal in the years ahead?
BISHOP: Yes, absolutely.
BOND: Now, looking back on it from today's perspective, what has it come to mean?
BISHOP: Well, it has come to mean opportunity, at least on paper. The opportunity to compete, the opportunity to participate and, of course, as I later came to understand as an attorney, it was the foundation of equality through the 14th Amendment and I believe that through that, all of the other gains that we've been able to make in terms of race relations, whether it's the Voting Rights Act, the opportunity to participate, whether it's equal housing, public accommodations -- all of that really came from the writ jurisprudence established in Brown.
BOND: In some ways, the Brown case actually helped you to go to law school --
BISHOP: Oh, no question.
BOND: -- because every university had filed suit against Georgia, even though a private school, to allow it to admit black students. They won the suit, they admitted black students and shortly thereafter you enrolled.
BISHOP: Yes, that is correct, and, of course, Thurgood Marshall who was the attorney in Brown, one of the attorneys in Brown, was head of the Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and one of the arms of that was the [Herbert] Lehman Foundation and the Earl Warren Training Program in which I participated, both in law school to assist those African Americans who were able to take advantage of desegregation of the southern law schools in terms of scholarship help and then post-graduate when I got to participate as an Earl Warren Fellow doing an internship in civil rights litigation.
BOND: And then further after that, you settled in Columbus, Georgia.
BOND: Because the fellowship required that you go to a place where there were few black lawyers, unlike Atlanta, say, and you participated in a landmark case in Texas that had its roots in Brown.
BISHOP: Yes. Actually, I got involved in that case while I was in New York in 1971 right after I got out of school. In 1966, a group of Texas teachers who were in Sweeny, Texas, the Sweeny Independent School District, when that district desegregated they had two of everything and so they decided that two was too many and they needed to consolidate and they discharged 75% of the black teachers and retained all of the white teachers and, of course, the black teachers filed suit in the federal district court. The federal judge tried it improperly before a jury and, of course, he vowed that "those niggers would never teach any white students as long he was the judge," and, of course, the jury ruled against them.
It was appealed to the Supreme Court from that trial in '66 and, of course, it had been reversed by the Supreme Court, went to the 5th Circuit, then it went to the Supreme Court, then it was reversed and sent back, remanded to the district court in 1971 as I was getting out of law school and I was assigned to go down and review the record to see whether or not there needed to be a new trial, whether it should be re-submitted to the judge for him to decide on the record, or whether the record needed to be supplemented. I recommended that the record be supplemented, not a full-blown trial, but that there be some more evidence put in and, of course, I was designated as lead counsel working with two local attorneys, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald and Weldon Berry who were there in Houston. Of course, it was a great experience for me. It was an interesting case, but it was perpetuating the legacy of Brown.
Ultimately, the case continued. We were ruled against but we made a good record. It went back up to the 5th Circuit, back up to the Supreme Court, reversed later. By that time, I was in the legislature, but it was taken away from that judge, assigned to another judge. They settled it and the estates of some of the black teachers received substantial settlements—four or five hundred thousand dollars, but the main plaintiff, Mildred Harkless who was a young teacher, immediately left and went to California. She didn't get a lot of back pay because the measure of damages was the difference between what you would've made and what you actually made and, of course, she went to a place that paid teachers higher than they did in Texas at the time. But it was an interesting experience for me.
BOND: I would guess so. So, in a way, Brown has impacted you all throughout your life, from the time of the decision in '54 when you were seven 'til the time you graduate from law school — you get into law school, you graduated from law school and you become an actual lawyer.
BISHOP: Absolutely, and, of course, the jurisprudence established by Brown has, of course, affected my legal career in terms of the cases in civil rights and, of course, it has obviously affected my life in its entirety.
BOND: Who are the people who've been significant in helping you develop your talents and your skills? Who're the people who've made a difference to you over the years?
BISHOP: Well, there've been so many people who have impacted my life. Obviously, my parents, my mother and my father who were both wonderful people, both Christian, both tried to instill within me respect for humankind regardless of the height or the lowness of stature in terms of society.
Then, of course, the people in my church. I had a Sunday School teacher who I think I must've been seven or eight when I got into a Sunday School class but it was around the time of the Emmett Till case and, of course, she talked to us about racial matters and how to stay out of trouble and not to look the wrong way at a white woman and never get in a situation where you could be charged with rape, but she also was a person who believed in me and all of us, but she put me forward to do public speaking. I was the spokesperson, I was the youth speaker in any program that she had anything to do with and, of course, she had a city-wide program when I was probably about 10 or 11 and there was a child prodigy by the name of George Mason Miller, Jr., who was from Mooresville, North Carolina, but he was a tiny kid, but a prodigy in that he memorized all of the countries in the United Nations and all of the flags and he would come and travel around doing lectures for a fee and, of course, it was my designation to introduce him when he came to Mobile and we had the big speech at the ILA Hall which was the only place that blacks could gather in a large auditorium at that time, other than a school, and, of course, I practiced for days with a tape recorder my introduction of Miller and so it was quite a learning experience in terms of public speaking and, of course, I guess that impacted me and, of course, Mrs. Reese who was the—she was a spinster school principal, Sunday School teacher, was influential in that.
Of course, I was a Boy Scout and there were Scout leaders who impacted me—Mr. A.J. Dickerson, who was the Scout executive who was a deacon at my church. Mr. Somerfield Hall, who was an elderly man who had been in one of FDR's CC camps, had been in the Army, but who was just a really inspiring Scout leader. My Scout Master, Mr. Donnie McCann, who had no boys of his own, but the boys in Troop 201, which was the first black Boy Scout troop in Mobile, Alabama. All of the white troops went from 1 up to 199 -- I'm sorry, to 200 -- and then the black troops started at number 201 and went up from there, so I was fortunate to be a Boy Scout. That impacted me tremendously with the principles, the Scout Oath, the Scout Law — on my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, morally straight. Then the points of the Scout Law — a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, thrifty, cheerful, reverent, brave. All of those things are really the basis of character building and, of course, that shaped my life tremendously.
The other thing in the Boy Scouts was a group called the Order of the Arrow. It was a brotherhood of honor campers and it was sort of like the elite, but it was really a brotherhood of cheerful service and it taught service and self-sacrifice and I think that instilled in me, having participated in that for many years and been a part of the ceremonial team and reciting the ritual of those principles, those noble principles of service I think were instilled into me and so when I became a lawyer and, of course, there was a local lawyer, Vernon Crawford, in Mobile who happened to have been a friend of the family.
I watched Perry Mason every day and I said, well, maybe I'd like to be a lawyer. He came to career day at school when I was in elementary school. I talked with him and said, "What does it take to be a lawyer?" He said, "Well, you've got to finish high school, you gotta make good grades, gotta get to college, gotta finish college, gotta take the LSAT, then you gotta go to law school, you gotta pass the bar examination and then you can become a lawyer," so he sort of laid out the steps and, of course, as a Boy Scout, we had gone through the ranks of Scouting and, of course, I was able to achieve the rank of Eagle, one step at a time and so when he laid out those steps, in my mind, I thought these are the things I have to go through to become a lawyer.
Fast forward — I get to Morehouse. Was impressed tremendously by Dr. [Benjamin] Mays. As a child, 10 years old, Dr. Mays comes to spend the night in my home for three nights. There were no public accommodations. He was invited to speak by the Mobile County Teachers Association. There was no hotel for him to stay, so he stayed in the home of a Morehouse man, my father. I was a latchkey child so he was there in the afternoon when I got home so I got to spend some quality time with Dr. Mays for two afternoons before he left. I was very, very, very impressed and, of course, decided at that point that Morehouse may be where I wanted to go and, of course, my father etched that when he drove through Atlanta and stopped at the campus, took me on the campus with him and he went into Danforth Chapel, sat down at the piano and started playing "Dear Old Morehouse" and looking sentimental. Then he walked over to John Hope's grave and he bowed his head very sentimentally.
Then he walked up to Graves Hall and looked up and said, "I used to live in that room right there," and he walked over to Robert Hall and said, "I used to live in that room and so and so was my roommate," and he looked — I said, "This must be some place to have my strong father become this sentimental, and maybe I want to come here."
BOND: So you didn't have any choice?
BISHOP: Well, I guess I didn't. I had a choice and he did not obviously exert any influence that I was aware of because I guess he figured I'd do the opposite, but I was offered a four-year all-expense-paid scholarship to three or four other HBCUs. I was offered a one-year tuition-only scholarship to Morehouse. I chose to go to Morehouse. My father didn't object.
BOND: I'm sure he didn't, I'm sure he didn't.
BISHOP: But those were very important years for me. I had a high school teacher when I got to tenth grade, who for some reason tapped me out and said, "You need to get in the Student Council. I want you in the Student Council." So I ran for the Sophomore Class President and I won. He encouraged me. I ran for the Vice President of the Student Council the next year and won. He encouraged me to run for District President; I did and won and then he encouraged me to run for State President and the local School President and I won both of those, so I was a State President of the Alabama State Association of Student Councils.
Now, mind you, this is still during the days of segregation. This is 1964, 10 years after Brown, but schools are still for the most part, still segregated, so the student councils were also segregated and so every southern state had two state associations of student councils and, of course, as State President, the Williamsburg Student Burgesses that was sponsored and hosted by a lady by the name of Dorothy Gordon. She was some national radio syndicated person, but it was a youth forum and we talked about international affairs and national issues and the president of each of the State Associations of Student Council were invited to represent their state, except each southern state had two representatives, a black one and a white one. I was the black one from Alabama and we went to Colonial Williamsburg. It was a very, very interesting opportunity for me.
I got to function in an inter-racial setting and I got to figure out that I was just as smart, just as articulate as the white kids were and that just as I'd learned when I went to the National Boy Scout National Jamboree in Colorado Springs, which was also integrated, that, you know, I could compete, but, again, I went to Morehouse and was influenced by Dr. King.
BOND: You were in the Glee Club?
BISHOP: I was in the Glee Club, but my freshman year is the year that Dr. King received the Nobel Prize and, of course, he was honored on the campus with an honorary degree at a convocation during my freshman year. Dr. [Benjamin] Mays gave him the commendation and he was so eloquent that I asked Dr. Mays for a copy of his remarks, which he graciously provided me with as a study in my English composition class on parallelism and repetition and all of the things that make for a good composition and, of course, they were all there, but I got to meet Dr. King. I was impressed and I began to follow him and, of course, by my senior year I was SGA President at Morehouse. He was assassinated.
Everything in Atlanta just went, and across the country, just went wild. There were riots and fire bombings and all kinds of things like that and I was trying to keep the students relatively controlled on campus so that we wouldn't have any destruction there on the campus, but Dr. King was my — he was my hero. I wanted to follow his footsteps. I wanted to be like Dr. King even though I was a pre-law major. I was majoring in political science, minoring in English at Morehouse. I was getting a bachelor of arts degree, which required a year of philosophy and a year of religion, and, of course, I had been well schooled in Sunday School by Mrs. Reese and others and, of course, I began to wonder whether or not my calling was the ministry and I, of course, was very, very much inspired by Dr. King, so I applied to Crozier Theological Seminary.
BOND: Where he had gone.
BISHOP: Where he had gone, of course, knowing that he had gone to Morehouse and, of course, I — oh, I missed a step. When I was President of the State Student Council, the state meeting was held at Alabama State College in Montgomery at Lab High School, their laboratory high school, and the keynote speaker was a young man who had just been elected to the Georgia State Senate whose name was Leroy Johnson and, of course, he came and he spoke to our group and here I am, a senior in high school, and he talked about his background at Booker [T.] Washington High School in Atlanta, Morehouse College, North Carolina Central Law School, practicing law in Atlanta, run for the state Senate, elected.
I was impressed and, of course, I'd been a fan of government since I had done the Citizenship Merit Badges in the Boy Scouts and since I'd taken government in high school — it was my favorite subject—and so I said, well, maybe I can go to Morehouse and be a lawyer and maybe one day get to the Georgia State Senate.
BOND: So even then you were thinking about —
BISHOP: Yes, subliminally, I guess. But seeing these role models, basically the role model[s] — Dr. Mays, Dr. King, Leroy Johnson, Horace Ward. Horace Ward a professor down at the college where my father was then Dean and Mr. Ward taught social science but he got there because he had applied to the University of Georgia Law School. It was during the Korean War and, of course, when, he applied they sent him a draft notice to make sure that he wouldn't be able to attend even though they rejected him, so somehow my father was able to offer him a job teaching which was draft exempt so he ended up coming to Mobile and teaching at the college where he met his wife, Ruth LeFlore.
BOND: Who was a daughter of a famous civil rights family in Mobile.
BISHOP: Yes, that's correct. Mr. LeFlore was a mover and a shaker. Interesting, because he worked for the post office and, of course, he had a federal job and he couldn't be leveraged like so many others were and, of course, he was a very, very prominent and courageous man in Mobile and, of course, he was a hero also. But interesting — that's how I have progressed and, of course, had a little episode there on the campus at Morehouse when Dr. [Hugh M.] Gloster was getting inaugurated. We had a little student demonstration, but I think the professors who influenced me most were Tobe Johnson and Dr. Anna Harvin Grant, very, very demanding professors. Also, Dr. [Lois Moreland] over at Spelman. I took Political Parties from her, but Dr. Johnson I worked very, very closely with in the Political Science Department as a student assistant.
I also was a student assistant for him, [with] the Morehouse Self-Study Committee. He was Chair of the Self-Study so I worked for him in two capacities as well as having him as my mentor in my major, political science.
Dr. [Robert] Brisbane was chairman of the department, but I spent more time with Dr. Johnson and Dr. Grant was such a tough teacher that when I made it out of her class, I mean, she was just somebody I held in such high esteem and both of them I kept in touch with — I've continued to keep in touch with. She passed away a few months ago, but those two folks really influenced me.
BISHOP: Getting back to the Crozier Theological Seminary, I was at Dr. [Hugh M.] Gloster's inauguration, I was supposed to be interviewed by Dr. Ronald Wells who was the President of Crozier who was coming down for the inauguration. I was a student speaker as was the tradition at an academic convocation, the student government president brought greetings from the students, the alumni president from the alumni and, of course, the dean for the administration and the mayor and other dignitaries, but I spoke and reiterated some of the points that we had made in our demonstration that led right up to Dr. Gloster's inauguration where the seniors had threatened not to march and the Glee Club had threatened not to sing and the swimming team wasn't going to swim in the SIAC championship tournament, the basketball team wasn't going to play —
BOND: What was the issue?
BISHOP: There were conditions on campus, you know, food in the dining hall, professors being unfair with grading, the administration not getting grades out on time, not putting up the graduation lists until the morning of, things like that that were mountainous things to us as students but probably seem miniscule now, but we had a little student uprising going there and we got it settled on the eve of his inauguration for fear that he would think that we didn't mean business. I had to reiterate it in my greetings, which caused quite a stir, but Dr. Wells was there. I ended up getting a standing ovation. Many of the faculty were upset but Dr. Wells did not interview me, but he wrote me a letter and said he didn't need to and he told me that I was accepted, that I\'d get scholarship help, work-study help, whatever I needed, that they wanted me at Crozier.
Meanwhile, I was accepted to Emory's Law School to the CLEO program, the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, which was like a pre-start law program designed to test whether or not the LSAT really predicted performance in law school. I scored low on the LSAT, but I had all of the other prerequisites for admission to law school and, of course, if you went through the summer program taking actual law courses with law professors and successfully completed that, then there were several law schools that had contracted to accept any graduate, including Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt and Duke, as well as Emory.
I wanted to go to law school in the region where I wanted to practice. I wanted to stay in the South. I knew that, because I'd been inspired by Dr. King and I wanted to use whatever skills I had or was able to develop to improve the quality of life in my native South and that's why I wanted to go to Emory.
BISHOP: I found out about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's program as I was about to graduate, which was designed to just what I was trying to do so I got accepted to that, went to New York and, of course, ultimately came back to Columbus, Georgia, and set up my law practice. At that time, Albert Thompson was the only black lawyer in Columbus. He was a member of the legislature and most of his time — well, at least half of his time was spent in Atlanta, and Columbus was the second largest city in Georgia at that time and it was a wonderful opportunity so I went there. Two months after I got there the Legal Defense Fund sent me down to Reidsville —
BOND: The state prison.
BISHOP: The state prison, to follow up on some letters that they had received from black inmates who were claiming that they had been discriminated against and they had filed a pro se lawsuit against the state prison. I was to go down and talk with them and determine whether or not their case had merit. They had filed a pro se complaint. The Attorney General had filed a motion to dismiss their complaint. The motion was pending and it was about to be decided. They said, "We need some legal help," so I went down and interviewed about two dozen inmates, determined that if what they said was true, was factual, that they did have a case.
I recommended to the Legal Defense Fund — I gave that information to the Legal Defense Fund.They said that they would support the case if I would be the lead counsel. They would give me additional lawyers to work with me, they would advance expenses and if we won the case and got reimbursement of attorney's fees, then I would just repay that back and what else was awarded I would be able to keep, so I proceeded to do that and got involved in this massive prisoner rights litigation representing 6,000 black inmates out of 10,000 at the prison. There were 4,000 white inmates.
They were in architecturally equal living spaces, an east side and a west side of the prison, but the 6,000 blacks were on one side and the 4,000 whites were on the other side. They ate, slept, did everything according to where they lived, exercised, go to the doctor; there were no black guards, no black counselors. The only people black at that prison were the inmates.
Once we got into it there were about 20 different issues. Censoring of mail was a non-racial issue. Adequate medical care, adequate access to an attorney or to legal documents, those types of things were non-legal. If they wanted to write to a legislator, their mail could be censored by the guard who didn't want it to get out. If they were writing to their attorney, it could be censored and so those were issues, but we also had a lot of racial issues and segregation-type issues.
BOND: Did any of the white inmates become plaintiffs as well?
BISHOP: Well, what happened was after the judge, Judge [Anthony] Alaimo of the Southern District of Georgia certified the case as a class action on behalf of the black inmates, he then certified it as a class action on behalf of the white inmates and assigned me —
BOND: To represent them.
BISHOP: To represent them also on the non-racial issues and so one of my law professors, Professor Bob Stubbs, had become Executive Assistant Attorney General, had left the law school at Emory, gone to work for Arthur Bolton, and so I hand-delivered the amended complaint and the motions and the memoranda and the opposition to the motion to dismiss to him. He said, "What do you think we should do with this?" I said, "You ought to settle it. You're clearly wrong." He said, "We'll take that under advisement."
So we litigated for four years, had two status conferences, a minimum of two each year and in December of 1975 after having had eight of those meetings and having the judge tell the state and the Attorney General's office each time that you need to do this and they say, "Well, it cost 110 million dollars, we'd have to get the legislature to appropriate the money." He said, "Well, tell them to do it. Tell them I said do it." After eight times, they said the legislature had to appropriate the money. I got frustrated and I said, "I'm in the wrong place. I've won this case. These people are entitled to their rights, but they can't get them because the legislature's dragging its feet." So I decided to run for the legislature in a 65% white district.
I was fortunate enough to get elected. Stayed in the House for six years and finally the legislature appropriated the $110 million to fix the situation to depopulate or at least decentralize the prisoners, having smaller prisons, more modern and more habitable conditions, but the economy fell out and so as a consequence of that, the prisons were built but they couldn't be furnished nor staffed, which it took a few years for that and that happened the year that I ran for Congress and, of course, once I was elected to Congress, I was sent back to — I was invited back to cut the ribbon on these new prisons, and Allen Ault, who was the Commissioners of Corrections appointed by Zell Miller, had been the Commissioner of Corrections when the case was initially started, when I was litigating and so he introduced me to give my greetings. He says, "We invited him because he's a congressman and these institutions are in his district but we're really here because of what he did in his other life."
BOND: That must've been sweet satisfaction.
BISHOP: It was. It was. It was. It made it seem all worthwhile, because I realized that I could win a case for my clients and it would affect them, but I could pass one good law and it could affect everybody in the state.
BOND: To go back a little bit and talk about both high school and college experiences and maybe law school experiences, too, here you're in these student body positions, these are leadership positions. What did they do and other positions like those that you may have held, to give you the skills, the temperament to be a leader?
BISHOP: It's all in the experience, in the practice. When I was in junior high school and high school, our teachers and principals at assemblies day in and day out would say, "Young people, what you ought to be, you're now becoming," and it sounded like old folks' talk and I'd never paid that much attention to it, but I participated and as I participated, unknowingly I was gaining experience, confidence, and the kind of skills that it would take to, whether I was negotiating with my ninth grade class or my twelfth grade class or the student body and the administration at Morehouse over these conditions or ultimately Tom Murphy and the Governor and the General Assembly. These kinds of experiences prepared me for it as did my leadership participation in the Boy Scouts, starting off as a Tenderfoot going to 2nd Class, 1st Class, Star, Life, Eagle and then Senior Patrol Leader which is a leadership position where you have to lead other younger Scouts.
In the Order of the Arrow, being head of the ceremonial team and the top person, having started out as Kichkinet who was a messenger in the ritual and ending up being Allowat Sakima who was the High Chief. It's a learning experience, a growing experience and you get to have mentors and you get to see people with whom you can try to pattern yourself and so you — I'll give you a perfect example. When I got to high school, there was a young man — I was tenth grade, he was twelfth grade. He was student government president. He was very articulate. He was on the P.A. system every morning. One of his duties was to give the morning announcements, so it was like Good Morning America. He was on there. He was giving the announcements, including the menu for the day in the cafeteria. He was articulate, so articulate that everyone and particularly me, wanted to emulate him, wanted to talk like him and be like him and by the way, that was Dr. James Raphael Gavin III, the immediate past president of the Morehouse School of Medicine. He was my SGA president when I was in tenth grade and he was the guy that I wanted to be like. He ended up going to Livingstone but he ended up at Emory in biochemistry, in the Ph.D. program when I was at Emory Law School so we ended up being together again, but he was the guy that really inspired me and whom I tried to emulate.
BISHOP: Of course, while I was in college, I learned of Malcolm X and they were passing the book around in the dining hall. I got the Autobiography of Malcolm X and I was glued to it for forty-eight hours. I mean, I just couldn't put it down, just really changed my outlook on a lot of things on life.
Then in 1968 I had the opportunity as I graduated from Morehouse after Dr. King's assassination to attend several sessions of the African People's Congress, which was held at Morehouse.
BOND: In the gym.
BISHOP: In the gym and, of course, I had the opportunity for the first time to be acquainted with a man known as Minister Louis Farrakhan who was so impressive that night that people stopped in mid-stride.
BOND: That was his speech in which he called his assistant to the stage and he's talking about how important Elijah Muhammad is and he used this guy as a bulletin board. Do you remember that? He said, "You don't let your heart" — boom, and he hit this guy in the heart — "tell your head what to do. You don't let your stomach" — I'd never seen anything like that in my life.
BISHOP: But, I mean, I was just so taken by his message and his manner that I rushed out to the mosque the next day to hear him, but I had so much exposure, so many influences and, of course, when I even mentioned the possibility of joining The Nation, my father —
BOND: I bet he hit the ceiling.
BISHOP: He had a real, real time with that and, of course, he was persuasive in his own way in at least causing me to pause and, of course, I learned a lot about a lot of things and, of course, world religions, Judaism. I grew up in Christianity and, you know, ultimately I had to choose between going to Emory Law School and Crozier. I decided the week before school started I was going to Emory.
BOND: Now, you mentioned a man named I think Bob Smith or—yeah, Bob Smith, Harvard Law grad you met in Atlanta, and he advised you to go to law school. You said, "Talking with Bob a lot I decided I could make a more practical contribution as a lawyer. Lawyers deal more with the nitty gritty. Perhaps I can help more people over the long haul as a Christian layman than I could in a pulpit," you said.
BISHOP: Yes, yes. In fact, I think Bob was also a lawyer and a minister. He was attending the seminary out in Decatur—
BISHOP: Columbia, but he was a staff attorney at the Emory Neighborhood Law Office at the time I was doing my clinical work at Emory. I had told him about the dilemmas that I had faced earlier in trying to decide whether to go to seminary or go to law school and I had determined that mine would probably end up being a ministry of public service and ultimately, I came to realize that that's what my destiny was. In other countries, there's a ministry of health, a ministry of trade, a ministry of education, and we call ours agencies, this particular agency, the Agricultural Department or whatever the departments are, but I think that I've come to realize that my calling was a ministry of public service.
BOND: I read some place else that you'd said that you realize that every time Reverend King got in jail, he had to call an attorney to get him out.
BISHOP: That's right. And I was committed to the movement, to doing something in the South and, of course, when I graduated from Morehouse in '68, still with the King legacy on my mind, my first year at Emory I took at job at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center which was just started on the campus of ITC in the basement there of Dr. Vincent Harding, who directed that as well as the Institute of the Black World where I had the good fortune of meeting people like Julian Bond, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Donald Stone and many others who came through—Willie Ricks—from time to time, but I got an exposure of the movement that I had not had and it was a very, very fruitful experience for me.
BOND: But let me ask you this. Here's Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Martin Luther King. These are very different men.
BISHOP: They are.
BOND: Very different men. How did you take inspiration from each of them and make them into something that was good for Sanford Bishop?
BISHOP: Well, I guess it was a combination of all of the experiences in my life. While Malcolm X, Minister Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad seemed to have initially believed that the white man was a devil, my experience taught me different. It taught me that there were good white men and there were bad white men and there were good black men and there were bad black men.
I should share an experience I had my first year at Law School at Emory. I went in 1968. There was a professor, receding hairline, wire-rimmed glasses, a stubby cigar in his mouth, a big wide-breast particular tie on, deep southern drawl and he was a real property instructor. His name was Professor William Agnor. Dr. Agnor walked in that particular day with a Wallace for President tie clamp on his tie. I was sitting on the front row. My name started with B. I said, "I'm in the wrong place. No sense in my even trying to do anything here. This man is for George Wallace." So I did not push myself. I might cut class; I might not. If he called on me, I might be prepared; I might not, but the only thing that really counted in law school was what you did on the exam.
I got my examination paper back. I had a C. I was incensed because I had gotten an A in one class, a B in others and, you know, and so I march in to see Dr. Agnor. "Dr. Agnor, why did I only get a C in your class? I got an A in this and a B in this and a B in that. Why did I get just a C in your class?" And he looks at me and he says, "Well, Sanford, you got a C because you wrote a C paper." He said, "If you try a little bit harder, you might do a little bit better." So the second quarter I worked a little bit hard harder, not full force, but just a little bit. I got a B. So I said, "Hmmm." The third quarter I gave it everything I had and I aced the course. I got the top grade in the course. They called it booking the course. You got a jurisprudence book from one of the book publishing companies for that. That was the prize and, of course, then I went to see Dr. Agnor.
"Dr. Agnor, I had you wrong." I said, "I thought you were a racist, a segregationist and I didn't think you would be fair." He said, "Well, Sanford, I tell you the truth. I was one of those professors at Emory that fought the admission of blacks to the law school but I'm happy to say that I lived long enough to realize I was wrong." He said, "There're black students that belong at Emory and there're white students that belong at Emory. There're white students that don't belong here and there're black students that don't belong here, but you're one that belongs here and you're going to make a fine lawyer." And from that moment on, I took every course he taught and he was a mentor even after I got out of law school.
BOND: At what point in your life, even going back as far as high school, did you say or think to yourself — may not have said it — I'm a leader. Other people follow me. I can direct the course of other people's actions. When did that come to you?
BISHOP: It never really came to me. It was when people said, "You know, Sanford, we want you to run for president," or an instructor said, "Sanford, I want you to run for District President." "But, I don't" — "No, you should run. You have all that it takes," and I got the encouragement. When Mrs. Reese would say, "Sanford, I want you to introduce this young man that's coming to Mobile to speak. You're the one to do it. I want you to do it." And people who expressed confidence in me.
I was not afraid to talk to the teachers and so other kids would come to me and say, "Well, ask Miss So-and-so this," or "ask her can we go out for recess," "ask her can we do this," and I was bold enough to do it and so that I guess allowed them to delegate and to allow me to be their spokesperson and represent them in doing what they didn't necessarily feel comfortable doing themselves and I guess it just grew and, of course, when I had the experiences in the Boy Scouts and in the student council, I got the confidence and I was able to I guess persuade people that I could articulate their needs and concerns.
BOND: Now, some of what you're describing is nurturing, people nurturing you and other people would say that it's nature that creates these leadership impulses. Which is it for you, do you think? Is it nature or is it nurture?
BISHOP: I would think that it might be a combination. Later in life, when I ran for the legislature, I happened to be sitting down with my parents and they were talking about how I acted as a child and they recalled when I was two and three years old in the yard or at nursery school playing with the other children how I seemed to — whatever I did, the other children went to do. If I decided I was tired of playing ball and went and got on the seesaw, everybody else would come around the seesaw, and if I decided that I wanted to go and pluck the clover from the grass and the other kids said, "What're you doing?" they would follow and want to know what I was doing and so they, in their own minds, said, "He looks like he's going to be a leader," but they didn't say that to me.
BOND: But they may not have even consciously said to themselves.
BISHOP: Right. Well, they did, they discussed it with each other.
BOND: Oh, really?
BISHOP: They said, "Look how they're following Sanford."
BOND: I meant the other children may not have—
BISHOP: No, no, no, but it was my parents, because I didn't notice it, but my parents noticed it and apparently maybe some of the people at the nursery school or at my schools noticed it and, of course, the teachers were — we all knew one another in our community and, of course, my parents were friends with many of the teachers whom they had taught when they were college students and so they would report on little Sandy.
BOND: You write a lot or talk a lot about putting moral values into young people. How do we do this in a world in which you have so many dysfunctional families living, some of them, in dysfunctional neighborhoods. Can you do it through religious organizations? How can we use religion in order to increase the moral standing of people?
BISHOP: Well, as I learned from Roswell Jackson and Religion 301 at Morehouse, religion is a way of life.
BOND: I'm amazed at your ability to recall these names and dates and course numbers. For me, it's a just — anyway, I can't do it.
BISHOP: Well, Reverend Jackson said that religion is a way of life and indeed it is. It's what important to you, how you live, and we've got to set examples for young people, but we also have to put some markers before them. I grew up in an era when it was common to have prayer in schools. It was the thing. Every day that I went to school for twelve years it was the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Pledge to the flag and "My Country 'Tis of Thee," from first grade through twelfth grade. There were lots of kids in my class who didn't go to church, but they knew the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. And I'm sure at some point in their lives, they drew upon that. I was fortunate to grow up in the church, from as far back as I can remember, and I seriously studied my Sunday School lessons, and listened to that, and that was — that became a part of my moral being.
As I joined the Boy Scouts and learned the Scout Oath and Law and Promise and Slogan and Motto, those things became a part of my life and they were able to help me, I think, to negotiate and make choices that many young people today are not able to make in terms of deciding right from wrong.
BOND: But at the same time, I bet that among your classmates there were those who did come from church-going families, who went to church every Sunday, who heard the same Pledge and Psalm that you did every day in school, but whose lives nonetheless took a very different turn.
BISHOP: That is probably true, but I would think that if you looked at it statistically, probably more took the right turn than the wrong turn, and probably it had to do with the reinforcement that they were able to get in the public schools and in the community in terms of the moral standards that we seek.
BOND: Let me ask you some different or similar sorts of questions as a matter of fact. What's the difference, if you see any, between vision, philosophy, and style? What are the differences, if any, between these three things?
BISHOP: I would think vision would be a larger intangible aspiration for either an individual or a group or a people, if you will. Philosophy is that set of—that body of mores that would govern how one would implement a vision, or to some extent, maybe even shape the vision that one might have. A style is a means to an end. It's what is exhibited in accomplishing whatever one does or attempts to do. It's the way in which it is done.
BOND: When I read the material we've collected about your life and your career and your experiences in the Georgia legislature and now in the Congress, has your vision changed over time? Was it one thing here and something slightly different at another time? Has it matured or altered in any kind of way? I don't want to think of change as a negative, but—
BISHOP: I think that when I ran for public office the first time, I was trying to improve the quality of life for the people that I would represent. That was in 1976, when I ran for the Georgia House of Representatives. When I ran for the State Senate, that was still my aspiration. I wanted to utilize the legislative political process to improve the quality of lives, of life for the people that I represented and through jobs and a stronger economy, better education, safe communities, a clean environment, affordable health care, strong national defense within the context of a balanced budget, those were things that were the ingredients that are necessary to improve the quality of life in the society in which we live. When I ran for Congress, that was my platform and I view what I do and my life's work as being able to utilize the tools that we have available through the political process to improve people's lives.
Tobe Johnson taught us in 301 Political Science, that politics is nothing more, nothing less than who gets what, when and how, and I see my vision or my philosophy of life as trying to utilize this system and to utilize my life to make a difference in the quality of life that humankind can enjoy, not just my constituents who are my primary responsibility but the larger human family and, of course, in the legislature, it was 30,000, if you will. My church, my congregation was 30,000, and in the House, in the Senate, it was 116,000, and now 630,000 as a member of the Congress but I reach—it touches all 50 states, the territories, and half the world with the policies that the Congress implements and trying to get a handle on how to be able to be in a position to leverage and to pull the levers of power to have a positive influence on the world and on humankind is the real challenge that I face during the time that I'm fortunate enough to hold this position.
BOND: Now, your constituency, and correct me if I'm wrong, has gotten whiter from the House to the Senate to the Congress. Is that true?
BISHOP: Yes—well, initially when I ran for the State House, it was a 35% black/65% white. There was redistricting three or four years later, which made it a majority black district. Then when I ran for the Senate, it was about 50/50, black/white. When I ran for Congress, it was 45% black voter registration with 55% white voter registration. It was 56% black population—men, women, children and prisoners.
Shortly after I guess my second term in 1996, the federal courts decided that that was reverse discrimination and they forced a redrawing of the district lines. In fact, they redrew the district lines and my district was then reduced to 32% black and, of course, by that time, I had four years of experience under my belt and I had four years of demonstrated service and so I was able to get re-elected even though I had white opponents and Republican opponents and, of course, several redistrictings later, my district has now become 40% African American now, 60% white.
BOND: Well, I ask the question because when one theme that seems to be common in all of your public service is a kind of color-blindness—that you strive to improve life for all of the people that you represent, not just some of the people that you represent. Is that fair to say?
BISHOP: Well, it's fair to say in part. I've never forgotten who I am and how I got there. But for the Voting Rights Act, I wouldn't be sitting here. But for the Civil Rights Movement, I would not be here. But for Brown v. Board of Education, I would not be here, but what's good government for everybody is also good government for black people and so I'm for good government and it helps everyone and whether it's education, whether it's health care, as long as it's available and accessible for everyone and everyone has access and opportunity, be they rural or be they urban, be they be black, white, young or old, that's what government should be about and if I'm able to help everybody, that's what I want to do.
BOND: I wondered when you were talking earlier about the Georgia prison case if the white prisoners realized how they were the beneficiaries of an action begun by the black prisoners who were segregated from them.
BOND: Now, people talk about making leaders in three separate ways: first, great people cause great events or movements make leaders or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders who are appropriate for the times. Does one of these fit you?
BISHOP: I don't know. I probably think that the events and circumstances, the influences on my life, have shaped and molded me so that when situations arose where I happened to be present and a part of, I could utilize those skills and those abilities, those experiences to make a difference and having the orientation that I got through the various experiences in my life probably motivated me to step forward to try to make a difference, you know, whether it was the Boy Scouts or Sunday School, the Order of the Arrow. I'm there trying to make a difference and Dr. King sort of put that nail in my head pretty strongly.
I have to let you know that it was later in life, though, that I developed another hero. I'd heard of him during the movement days, never knew who he was, but it was Nelson Mandela, and truly Nelson Mandela has almost eclipsed Dr. King in terms of my respect and admiration for a leader. He's indeed a tremendous personality, and I'm fortunate to have read of his life and to have met him and to really have studied the way that he was able to deal with the circumstances with which he was faced, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, equal to that of Dr. King.
BOND: I'm skipping around a little bit here. In August of '92, you told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that you represent a new generation of leadership and in that, another interview after you'd moved to Columbus, he [the reporter] writes, "Sanford expresses distaste for some aspects of structured black society which revolves around clubs, lodges, sororities, dinner dances, and remnants of a simpler age." Is that a fair representation of your critique of certain aspects of black society?
BISHOP: At that point in my life, I guess so. It's interesting how one evolves. I have since that time grown to respect those traditional institutions and organizations such as the Masonic Lodges. I was initiated by some of the — my Boy Scout leaders early in my legal career [were] in the Masons. I was raised up to 32nd Degree and I recently was conferred the 33rd Degree, but I've developed over the years, I have matured to realize the wisdom of associating and affiliating with such organizations and realizing the historical place that they play and have played in our history and our culture and our success.
The fraternities and sororities, at some point they sometimes seem to be frivolous, but they also are service organizations and now with the right orientation, and as my father so very adequately convinced me, if the fraternity is not what you think it should be, then you should get in it and get other people of like mind to make it what you think it should be and, of course, that stuck with me and I think that all of these organizations have a place. Just this past Saturday I had the opportunity to speak by accident as a substitute speaker to the Metropolitan District of Columbia Chapter of the [Links], their annual Christmas dinner and I was to speak on objects -- on subjects that might be of interest with trends, but that was an opportunity for me to lift up to a very, very sophisticated audience the challenge that we face as individuals, as a country, as a people, in competing in the global community that we live in and how small the world has become, how flat the world has become through use of the Internet and what challenges that's going to bring to us and how our country is really going to be struggling to remain a super power unless we do some things a lot different.
BOND: Do you have a different style of leadership when you're talking to groups that are all black like the [Links] or a mixed race or all-white audiences? Are you different in these occasions?
BISHOP: No, I would not say that I'm different. I have the same message and there may be a difference in style. If I'm in a black church, I may take on the style of a black preacher. I may quote more scripture, you know, and I may be able to put it in — to package it in a way that that audience is accustomed to hearing it.
If I'm at a more sophisticated black audience, I may be more reserved in how I present the ideas. If I'm in a white audience or depending upon the level, I try to deliver my message in a way that is understandable and receivable by the audience. The message is the same, but the manner of presentation may be slightly different.
BOND: Now, what do we do as a country to create more leaders or more committed leaders in the future? What does our society have to do? How do we nurture new leaders?
BISHOP: By creating opportunities for leadership development, opportunities for students. There are many student programs that allow students to come into the Mock Legislature. There're programs that allow students to come to Washington in a Mock Congress where they debate issues and they decide how they would vote on the issues that the members of Congress are voting on which really gets them in the frame of mind of if I were in charge, what would I do and ultimately, one day they will be in charge and if they've had adequate opportunities to go through that process and to reflect on that process and how they go about making those kinds of decisions, I think that we'll have a much better cadre, a better pipeline coming to pass -- to whom we can pass the torch.
BOND: Sanford Bishop, thank you for being with us.
BISHOP: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.