Select Video Clip...
Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
BRAUN: Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.
BOND: It's our pleasure. I want to begin with a couple of questions about the Brown decision. I know you were just seven years old in 1954 when the Court ruled, but do you have any recollections of what it meant to you at the time or conversations about it in the family?
BRAUN: It actually made a huge difference, because it was in that year, or maybe the year after, that we moved from what was the heart of Chicago's Black Belt into then what was then a neighborhood that was on the cutting edge of integration and, as a result of Brown, I was able to go to a public school that -- starting in the third grade that had previously been all white, that had not been mixed at all, and we had some traumas as a result of it. We did the old -- this was also the time when the whole nuclear scare, as you recall, and so when the toughs would go by our school and throw rocks at the windows, we get under our desks and do "duck and cover." Do you remember that, "duck and cover"? We did "duck and cover" in the face of opposition to school desegregation in Chicago. Then, of course, later, my father, who was himself an activist, joined with Al Raby and something called the Community? I forget the name of it -- the CCC. I forget what it all stood for, but that was a group organized to protest the segregation of Chicago schools. They were using --
BOND: And which later brought Dr. King to Chicago.
BRAUN: Which later brought Dr. King to Chicago, exactly. Well, he did for schools and housing because I actually marched with him on the housing march, yes, but they were using something called "Willis wagons." The superintendent of schools was Ben Willis and in order to keep the overcrowding in the black schools from putting pressure for integration on the formerly all-white schools, he used these trailers, and so you had in the black neighborhoods trailers to augment the population of -- for the population of black students and often undercrowding in the white schools, and so the CCC started to protest that and to say you know, Brown v. Board of Education requires that these schools be integrated to the extent possible, and we just have to get it going on, get it fixed here in Chicago.
BOND: Do you remember, at the time at this young age in '54 and even in '55, when you go to this new school, having any larger thoughts about what this meant to the larger world, the larger United States, what Brown might mean nationwide?
BRAUN: Well, no, to be honest. At that point I didn't. I did later. We had kind of an unusual household because my parents considered themselves -- at least, my father -- well, both of my parents. They were not -- Bohemians is the wrong word, but we were surrounded by artists and musicians and so people from a lot of different walks of life, so we always had an integrated household, but there was always discussion of race relations and the kinds of developments in the larger community and so even as a small child, I was really acutely aware of the efforts of people to build an integrated society.
BOND: And probably I'm guessing, hopeful about it, that this would be a good thing and it will happen and things will be better?
BRAUN: Well, I just assumed, you see, I mean, for me, again, because as a child, there were black people and there were white people in my family, in what I considered to be family. There were Asians in my family, and so I kind of grew up in this multicultural milieu and didn't really see firsthand the problems. The earliest recollection is actually a hilarious story. The earliest recollection I have -- my great-grandfather had the farm, bought a farm in Alabama that's still in the family and we would go there in the summer times and I couldn't have been more than 8, maybe 10, 9 or 10 years old, and we would take the train down and we got off in Montgomery. I think it was Montgomery. Yes, it was Montgomery, and got off the train with my mother, myself, my mother, my little brother.
We were thirsty, but the water fountains were segregated, you know, there were water fountains for white and water fountains for colored and my mother wouldn't let us drink out of the colored water fountain and so my little brother laid in the middle of the floor screaming and had a temper tantrum. "I want some colored water, I want some colored water."
He thought it was going to come out green and blue and purple and yellow and red and so he wanted -- he was determined to have some colored water. He didn't understand obviously the implications of what all that was about.
BOND: Well now, we're fifty-one years away from the Brown decision in '54 and what do you think it has turned out to mean?
BRAUN: I think it's had very mixed reviews, to be honest. On the one hand, the integration of the schools was achieved on some levels and certainly in regards to faculty, in regards to hiring, those kinds of things have occurred pretty much across the country. On the other, I think it has given rise to the ghettoization, if you will, of public education because a lot of the constituency to pay for the public schools evaporated, vanished, with -- in the post-Brown environment. There are those who say there're a lot of different reasons for it and race and integration was not the only reason, but I think it's pretty -- I imagine it's documentable. I don't know, but when you look at the level of public support for public education nationwide, it is so diminished from the standing, if you will, of public education 50 years ago, from the kind of financial support that communities gave to public education. Now, that's a phenomenon across the board with education even at the higher levels, I think, but at the same time, I think that the constituency for public education was changed by the Brown decision more than anything else.
BOND: I read something you said in 1994 that the most interesting change in America since '54 is the way in which attitudes about life station have changed. What did you mean by that?
BRAUN: The notion that blacks were relegated to a particular set of roles in the society, that women were relegated to particular set of roles in society, that ethnicity would limit some persons -- limit people in terms of what they could do, and so what was considered the concept of station in life I think has changed the most. And that was what the whole cultural revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s I think represented. [What it] reflected more than anything else was the change in attitudes about station and therefore a series of realignments and adjustments in the way that we define civil society.
BOND: By any standard, you are a remarkably accomplished person, by any standard.
BRAUN: Well, thank you.
BOND: Have you ever thought that but for the Brown decision -- but for the Brown decision that you might be a very different person?
BRAUN: Oh, there's no question about it. There's no question about it. I mean, when I look back at, you know, people such as yourself and I don't want to speak over much, but the fact of the matter is that the role that you played, that Dr. King played, that Andy Young and all of the leadership of the civil rights movement from those days, it transformed this country and opened up doors and made it possible for people like myself to come through and to have the accomplishments that are now part of my resume. There's no way I would have been able to go to Ruggles Elementary or to get into the University of Chicago or to become a senator, ambassador and all this other stuff. None of it would have happened but for the efforts of people who actually took their own lives at risk to open up, integrate and change civil society in the United States.
BOND: Who are the people who have been most significant in shaping you, in creating you, in helping you develop?
BRAUN: Well, other than my parents which is pretty obvious, I've been blessed to have people come into my life at pivotal moments and make all the difference. When I dropped out of college, dropped out of high school really, a fellow by the name of Larry Hawkins who's still at the University of Chicago, essentially just turned my whole vision around and suggested to me that I could go on. In those days, they called it broadening your horizons, so Larry Hawkins made a great difference at that point in my life. When I got to -- I'm probably leaving somebody out, but when I got to the state legislature a woman named Ethel Alexander who was elected at the same time that I was, but she was a generation older -- in fact, I'm old enough to be her daughter or young enough to be her daughter -- she made a huge difference, so there're people along the way who touched my life at times when I might've taken one road or another and by their influence in my life, made a big difference.
BOND: Now, you mentioned your mother and father a moment ago and said that they weren't Bohemians, but they were people living in the artistic world and had people in the house. What about them?
BRAUN: Oh, well, my parents had an unusual marriage to begin with. I mean, it was a tumultuous marriage, but at the same time -- and they were opposites. My mother was very -- she called it "firesides and slippers." She wasn't social. She wasn't -- she had a little group of people that gravitated to her. She was very, in that regard, seen kind of as an earth mother that attracted people, but she wasn't all that outgoing. My father, on the other hand, was very outgoing and was involved in movements and causes and always engaged with the outside world and so as a result, he wound up -- he was a police officer or in law enforcement in some role or another as his day gig, if you will, but he played seven instruments and so he played the saxophone part-time professionally and so because he was in the Sol Hicks Band. I actually have a picture of the band and my mother sitting on the sidelines. I guess she was singing that night or something, so he played in a band and the result was that the musicians of that day, that time, were very much a part of our household and so [when] I grew up I knew Gene Ammons. I knew Byrd, Charlie Parker.
BOND: Charlie Parker?
BRAUN: Absolutely. Thelonious Monk. My aunt dated Dexter Gordon for a while, so all these musicians were around as I was growing up and in addition to the musicians, there were the artists. You know, inevitably where you find musicians, you find artists, and so I just grew up around the arts and that -- I don't know if by osmosis or otherwise, but that also I think influenced my world view.
BOND: I read some place that you described the difference between your mother and father as the difference between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. How did that play out?
BRAUN: That's exactly right. I didn't realize I had done that, but, yes, that's exactly right. Well, because she was very much. In fact, she had an expression that "You grow where you're planted." You do the best job you can where you're planted, and her expression was whether you're a street sweeper or the president of the United States, you do the best job you can at what you're doing and be proud of your work, so she was very much a "This is the job, this is the task, focus on not having ambitions, not seeing a world outside of the home and the family as being all that relevant."
He, on the other hand, did see the world and was very concerned about what was going on in the world and did what he could in his way to make a difference and to change things and so his social activism I think was borne of that and so I grew up, again, in addition to the musicians and the artists, I met my first -- I met a woman by the name of Anna Langford. [She] was the first black female alderwoman in Chicago, and he took me to Anna Langford's office when I was eleven so that I would meet a black woman alderman, and there was another woman judge, Edith Sampson, and he took me to meet her. We went around. He was very -- again, he had this broad mind and so we were raised Catholic. That was kind of a family compromise, but we went to and explored other religions with him and he would take us to everything from Buddhist temples and the Hindus temples; the Baha'i Temple, of course, there in Chicago; Jewish synagogues, the Muslims, the Moslems, the Zoroastrians. I mean, as a child we would go to mass on Sunday and then either on the Saturday before or on the Sunday, we'd go to some other service once a month and so I had a chance to, again, without knowing that was part of my education, learn about world religions from a very early age.
BOND: Very quickly back to Anna Langford, do you think this put something in your mind that "I could do this some day" ?
BRAUN: I don't think so. I mean, it's like kids, you take them and you try to expose them and they go "ah ah." I think that was kind of my attitude was like "ah, I don't." No, I don't. In fact, I didn't -- I didn't think of myself as -- I didn't envision or envisage a political career at all until I was running for office, for all intents and purpose. I mean it just, it wasn't something that I thought of as having any real relevance to my own career.
BOND: What about your grandmother?
BRAUN: Well, I had two very different grandmothers. My mother's mother, my grandmother I called my saint and guardian angel. She was a very -- she was the one who went to Mass every morning; every day she went to Mass. Lived a very structured life, very calm life. Well, her life actually was filled with tragedy, but later when I knew her, by the time I got up, she was a person in whom I found great refuge and nurturing and comfort and guidance.
My other grandmother was hell on wheels. I can say it even -- I'm sorry [laughs] and she was a black nationalist. She was what the men -- they were called race men, but she was -- and also what today is being called a revert. That's to say her family had been Muslims from North Africa, I gather. That's kind of getting lost in the midst of time, but anyway, she became a Muslim and so I actually went with her to hear Elijah Muhammed speak. I‘ve seen her. In fact, there was a convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 and I went under the auspices of -- somebody at that time was one of the mentors, Dick Newhouse, and I looked up and there's this little woman coming down the walk through the gymnasium, some big gymnasium, and she had on the Muslim garb and I looked at her and I said, "Mama Liz, what are you doing here?" She said, "I'm here to be with my people, the Ethiops are gathering" so, she had been very much, again, a black nationalist and very into not being -- into being a Muslim and so she practiced kind of the amalgamation of Muslim beliefs that Elijah Muhammed represented.
BOND: And your mother went to Xavier and Dillard?
BOND: And I wonder if that's connected to your seeking the kind of education you sought, or was it expected of you?
BRAUN: It was expected.
BOND: It was just given that you were going to go to college?
BOND: Maybe not to law school, but to college. You had to go to college?
BRAUN: Absolutely. Absolutely, college was a big deal in our family and there was just never any question but that that was what -- that was their aspiration for all of us and so when I dropped out, that was one of the --
BOND: Oh, I know that was just awful.
BRAUN: Yeah, yeah, when I dropped out, and again, serendipity, when Larry Hawkins -- I had dropped out and got a really good-paying job working for the Chicago Housing Authority and they made me a Community and Tenant Relations Aide which basically meant I went around and gave poor people five-day notices to get out of the projects. As it turned out, Hawkins had just started what he calls The Program. It's still called that, in which he used sports to try to reclaim kids from underprivileged homes and circumstances and he uses sports as kind of the hook to get them in for tutoring, to broaden their horizons, to interest them in other things and just by osmosis, you know. I wasn't technically part of his group, but the people I was in charge of were and so, as a result, you know, when it was over, when the summer was over, I – you know, at that point, I had the fire in my belly to, you know -- "You better get yourself back to school and do something."
BOND: Did you take any musical ability or interest from your father? I mean, he was such an accomplished musician playing these seven instruments, working as a professional musician. What about you?
BRAUN: Absolutely nothing. I tried the clarinet in college. Well, we had a piano always in the house. I can't the play the piano. I took lessons. The piano teacher hit my hands with the ruler a couple of times and that was the end of that and then when I got to -- I'll never forget -- I got to the second chair in high school band with the clarinet and I was home practicing one day, and to show you how things -- my uncle, who also was a musician, came past and said, "Baby, you better think about taking up something else." That was the end of my playing the clarinet.
BOND: And what about your father's political activism? How did that come to you, wash off on you?
BRAUN: Well, actually, again, his political activism, I didn't really -- it was a generation apart, you know, but he worked for the first -- he was always against the machine and this is important in terms of Chicago politics, because people think of Chicago politics and they think of the Daley machine. Well, there was always a group of independents out there who saw the machine as antithetical to the civil rights movement, antithetical to good government and honesty and reform in government and that was always the side of the equation that he found that he was on or found himself on.
And so he worked in the campaign of the first, one of the early black politicians to challenge the Daley machine. That was Charlie Chew. Charlie Chew ran as a reform candidate and my father was in real estate at that time and the office that he and his partner had, when they had a meeting for Charlie Chew, the city inspectors came and told them that the water was leaking and the gas was "dah dah," so they basically shut them down and put them out of business for a little while. So you can imagine there was no small amount of real anger and antipathy toward the Daley machine in our household. It was funny, too, because years later, of course, I got to know Rich Daley, the son, and there was no small amount of irony. I don't think Rich Daley ever really understood or appreciated what a big leap that was for me because our household had been absolutely just anti-Daley down the road.
BOND: But was there dinner table discussion about politics, about the machine, about Illinois politics?
BOND: United States politics, all of that, going on?
BRAUN: Yes. Partly -- he wasn't so much. He was active in local campaign efforts and in union campaign efforts and things like putting people to work on the street. There was a streetcar fight, you know, to get people, blacks, jobs working for the transportation company. He would do things like that, but his political vision was really more national and international so I don't remember him as being involved with state of Illinois politics as national and international. My father very often wouldn't vote -- not very often. I don't think he voted in primaries really because he thought that as far as he was concerned he shouldn't have to declare which party he belonged to.
BOND: Now, does his political activism account for this sit-in you staged when you were a teenager?
BRAUN: Probably. You know, I didn't expect it to be that. I didn't expect I'd be staging a sit-in, but you know, it happened and so that just seemed to me to be the right thing to do was just not move and so I didn't.
BOND: And a moment ago you mentioned marching with Dr. King in the housing struggles in Chicago. Tell us about that. How old were you then?
BRAUN: I think I was 15 and I'd have to check. I was either 15 or 16. I was still in high school and my mother had cautioned me, you know, again. By this point they were spilt up and we were with my mother and I remember her saying "You don't want to get mixed up with that, you might get in trouble, there's bound to be trouble," and, of course, that was just my sign that, "Oh, I just had to go obviously to the march at that point."
So I went over and we marched down I think it was 67th Street. I have a sense that we marched down Marquette Boulevard to get to Gage Park and I was paired with a veteran, a guy who had marched in the South, a white guy who had marched in the South, and there were some nuns in front of me. I remember it just as vividly as if it was yesterday because it was just that kind of a turning point and we marched and the rocks and the bottles started flying and the guy with whom I was marching was hit by a rock or a piece of glass or something and blood started coming down his face and, of course, I'm just horrified at this point, like, "Oh, my God."
He just took his handkerchief out and put it up there and stopped it and then the catcalls were coming from the sides and I remember, you know, having, again, grown up in a Catholic, more or less Catholic family, the nuns who were marching in front of me were being called all kinds of horrible names and "When was the last time you slept with that black whatever, Sister?" you know, and so I was horrified at that. There was a guy standing by the side of the road who was my age, a little bit younger actually; he was probably 12 or 13, and he was yelling, "Semee-humans go home, semee-humans go home." And I looked at him and I caught his eye and I said, "it's not semee-humans, it's semi." He says, "oh, thanks," so, it was "Semi-humans go home, semi-humans go home."
So we marched and got into the park itself and the violence was so horrible. I don't recollect gunshots, but I know it was rocks and bottles and bricks and glass. And so what they did was they put the women and children in the middle of the circle and then the activists around that, and then the hardcore activists were the outside perimeter. It got so bad, Dr. King was moved to the middle of the circle, and so he was as close to me as just right over there. I mean, literally touching distance almost and I remember, because you were supposed to cover your head up like this and we're down on the ground and covering up and he was standing there, and looking just as calm and sanguine in the face of all this and I remember, literally it was an epiphany for me because I was frankly ready to throw something back.
I mean, that was my first reaction was "Okay, the next rock falls near me is going right back out there," but the epiphany at that moment for me was the real -- what I came to understand to be the real message and the real power of non-violence which was that by standing there and by his example of peaceful resistance, by his example of claiming the moral high ground by his response, he had the victory, and that had he stooped, he would've been on the same level as the people against whom he was fighting. And so it was in that experience that I became committed really to non-violence and to his movement, as opposed to that of some of my friends who at that time were beginning to gravitate in the direction of, you know, the Panthers and, you know, get the gun and shoot back and all the rest of it.
BOND: Now, earlier, because your mother and father separated, you move into a neighborhood that's got a spectacular name. What's that name?
BRAUN: The Bucket of Blood.
BOND: What was that like? What was the change like for you?
BRAUN: It was really very traumatic for all of us, but in a way– I'll tell you, it's funny– It's one of those life traumas that I'm grateful for now. It probably set my brother on a path to his destruction, but I don't think I would be as rounded or as grounded, if you will, in the black experience if it hadn't been for that because we grew up in a community that for all intents and purposes was suburban, in a family, that, again, among blacks, we weren't rich people by any means, but we were considered to be well off, but well off in a different kind of environment. My parents weren't social enough to be part of the black -- what was it, the Black Bourgeoisie? Right. They weren't that.
BOND: This is the 50th anniversary of the Black Bourgeoisie being published.
BRAUN: Is it?
BRAUN: Well, he had the books. They weren't part of that, the club structure and all the rest of it. They weren't part of that, but they were part of that other, the black intellectuals, that tradition. That's more where they were, and so I really did not have a real sense of what the poverty was like, of what really the kind of degradation that came of the kind of grinding poverty that the urban ghettos represented. I'd seen poverty before, okay, particularly on the farm. I mean, we spent our summers on a farm and so I'd seen people, you know, living in houses with dirt floors and the outhouse and I knew all of that, but I hadn't seen it with people piled in tenements and rats running around biting babies and kids getting shot on the street corner.
BOND: What did that do to you or for you?
BRAUN: I think it really did -- I think it helped round out and helped me develop in important ways. It gave me an understanding and an appreciation of the effects of, not just slavery and Jim Crow, but of oppression and particularly economic oppression that I would not have otherwise had. It gave me another kind of vision about my own life commitment and my own path and that vision then included trying to do what I could to try to push back and to be a force in opposition to the forces that had created the poverty that I experienced.
BOND: I'm guessing now that that's one reason you decided to become a lawyer. Is that right?
BOND: What did you think that would give you?
BRAUN: A bunch of skills. I thought being a lawyer -- in fact, to answer your question, I thought being a lawyer would give me the ability to use the law which, of course, is the instrument in a large sense, of social control, right? To use that instrument in constructive and positive ways to help build community, to help people have opportunity and have a chance to have a better life. And when I first got out of law school, in fact, I turned down an offer from one of the biggest firms in Chicago to sign on to a community-based organization that I would use my legal skills, my training, rather, to work in the community. So that was my first commitment, and when that didn't work out, I became an Assistant U.S. Attorney and, of course, [what] my father called a paper-pusher for the government. He said, "Oh, you've become a paper-pusher for the government," but that was my path. I really thought that was useful.
BOND: Were there lawyers in Chicago or elsewhere in the country or the world that you said, "I want to be like that"?
BRAUN: Oh, sure. Yes, Jewel Lafontant was this model of elegance and you know, I mean, she was just the cat's pajamas as far as I was concerned and so I looked up to her. I mentioned Anna Langford and Edith Sampson, both of whom I had met. I knew– of course, everybody knew about Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Team from the NAACP. I mean, everybody knew about them and so that was a real model because these were people who had used the law to transform society, and so, yes, there were a lot of role models in that regard.
BOND: What was being an Assistant D.A., what was that like?
BRAUN: Wonderful training, wonderful training. I could not have asked for better. I didn't like the criminal side, to be honest. I did some criminal prosecutions and didn't like it much. I did some appellate work. In fact, I helped write the brief on the first RICO case, Racketeering and Organized Crime. We had the first RICO case in Illinois in regards to the prosecution of the former governor of Illinois, the Kerner case, so I got a chance to work on some really high profile cases there, but I preferred the civil ones and the good thing about that was that it allowed me -- it gave me a real taste of the structure and operation of the law that I wouldn't have had otherwise and a real taste of policy issues in ways that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
I mean, Igot to third chair the lawsuit that the American Medical Association brought against Jimmy Carter's health care reforms and so as result, I read every dot and tilda, as we say, of the health care laws. Well, my views of how health care was structured that I developed at that point, helped to shape my views on health care even to this day. And so because of the grounding that I got there, I was involved with some environmental cases that helped to shape where I wound up on environmental law. And so there were a variety of housing and health care and the poverty cases, all of the cases that I got a chance to try– and, of course, you got great trial experience because you're in court everyday– helped me develop an appreciation for the issues in a way that I don't think I could've gotten any other way.
BOND: Now, how did you move from that which sounds fascinating to me, to running for the legislature? What's the transition here?
BRAUN: Being a homemaker.
BOND: Yes. I mean, you got tired of being in the home?
BRAUN: Well, I was pregnant with my son Matt and my husband wanted a stay-at-home mom and I had no problem with that and so I had my son and I was a homemaker, and he today says that I was bored out of my mind and that he always knew I wasn't just going to stay home.
BOND: Is he right?
BRAUN: I don't know. I mean, see, I look back and romanticize it. I mean, I look back to having dinner parties, which is what I did. I had dinner parties and I'd take my son to the park. I had a little carriage and, you know, I'd go to the market and I mean, I just did things in the home. I was a homemaker and took care of my family and it was actually through that, that my state rep -- first foray into elective politics happened because I would take Matt up the park. We lived two blocks from this large park and I'd take Matt to the park. And while I was up there, there was a group of people protesting the Machine building a golf driving range in the habitat of some bobolinks which are rice birds and bobolinks are not supposed to live in Chicago because it's too cold, but they did. And we wanted to keep the bobolinks where they were and protect their habitat, so I joined the protestors. In fact, there's still a picture. A friend sent me a copy of it, of a picture of me with the sign, "Park District No, Bobolinks Yes." So we're walking around protesting the park district and we lost the battle.
The driving range is still there and I don't know what happened to the bobolinks, but anyway, but from that a woman who was one of the protestors was very involved politically, and so when our state representative retired, she -- I met her again pushing Matt down the street and she stopped me, and said, "Oh, the state rep just announced his retirement. Have you considered running for state legislature? I think you'd be good at it." And I went, "Oh, shucks, not me. You know, no, I've got a little baby." And then she said, "Well, come go with me to the community meeting about this." And so I told her I would, and I went to the community meeting and this guy stood up and said, "Don't run, you can't possibly win. The blacks won't vote for you because you're not part of the Chicago machine, the whites won't vote for you because you're black, and nobody's going to vote for you because you're a woman." And it was like, "Okay, where do I sign up, where do I sign up for this job?" I mean, that was literally what did it.
BOND: Did the Machine run a candidate against you, or did you run against the Machine candidate?
BRAUN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. The Machine, in fact, this kind of gets a little convoluted but you'll appreciate I think some of the nuances. Illinois had a multi-member district cumulative voting system, the same thing that got Lani Guinier in such trouble. And it worked brilliantly, by the way, for a hundred years. They just abolished it I guess in the late ‘80s, but we had a multi-member district system, and so the way that it had always been structured -- or not structured -- the way it had always come out was that the independents, the liberals, were able to elect one of the state reps. The Machine elected the other state rep, and then the Republicans had the other state representative. So that's the way it worked out in our district. And what happened was that the Machine candidate wound up—who was running for re-election—wound up losing as well as the open seat being filled, but he lost to -- he was black. The Machine candidate was black and Lewis A. H. Caldwell -- I don't know if that name rings any bells, but anyway, he wound up losing to Barbara Flynn Currie, a white woman who is now still presently the Assistant Majority Leader in the Illinois House, so the two women went to the state legislature in that election, one filling an open seat, the other one knocking out the Machine guy and they called it the Year of the Woman in Illinois.
BOND: That was the early Year of the Woman.
BRAUN: That was the first Year of the Woman, so we both got elected even though we had been competitors in the election process.
BOND: And then one of the things you do when you get there is you file a lawsuit against the Speaker?
BRAUN: Yes, well, that was a little later. That was like five years later. Yes, when the 1980 -- it wasn't that much longer, now that you mention it, because it was the '80 reapportionment so the lawsuit was filed in 1982 when they actually, you know, did it. When they went to reapportion the state legislature my own party won the -- in Illinois, we have a tradition that the parties pull a piece of paper out of Abraham Lincoln's hat, literally, I mean, so you go into Abraham Lincoln's hat and pull out this piece of paper to determine who gets the right to draw the lines if there's a tie. And that's what happened. So the Democrats drew Abraham Lincoln's hat, got the favor of the hat that time, and drew the maps, and the maps, as drawn, absolutely eliminated any Hispanic representation — even though we had two huge Hispanic communities in Chicago — and minimized to the absolute fewest number of seats possible the seats in which blacks could likely elect a representative. And it was just wrong.
And so I did what I could, you know, fighting it in the legislature through the process and we lost. We were out-voted and walking down the street again. My street kept getting me in trouble. [I'm] walking down the street and this guy with dreadlocks who was a community activist—you know the type, right? They had long hair, the coats are too big and hanging off and he's got books under his arms—and he says, "Oh, this is terrible what's happened, somebody ought to file a lawsuit." And he says, "This is a just a travesty that the lines would be drawn that way." And I said, "Well, you know, we tried." I said, "the only thing I think can happen now is that somebody files a lawsuit," and he looked at me and he said, "Well, you're a lawyer, ain't you?" Like, "Oh, well," so they sucked me in and so I wound up— as matter of fact, it was really very funny, I said, "I couldn't possibly? I don't have a law firm. I'm just by myself." "Oh, don't worry, we'll get you a battery of lawyers and we'll put it together."
Well, he showed up that evening with a guy who also had dreadlocks, was probably high on pot and talking about the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights so I knew I was in trouble. I'm thinking, "Oh, my goodness," so I wound up drawing the lawsuit up on my dining room table and I had called a friend with one of the big law firms who said that he thought his firm would handle it pro bono. This is another time when serendipity plays such a role in my life because I went -- I took my papers, because, you know, the canons of ethics say you don't file lawsuits that you can't handle, and you know, I knew there was no way that I could handle a three-judge district court, you know, huge litigation like this on my own, but I filed the case just to, you know, just to make the record. I think it got that much notice in the newspaper, if any, and then went down to this law firm to talk with the lawyers about what they would do to handle this reapportionment case and they turned me down.
BRAUN: They said, "Oh, no, we're not going to get into that, that's too much of a political hot potato," and they turned me down and I remember I was so crushed. My friend was embarrassed because he thought he had worked all this out and I was on the verge of tears because I knew that the only thing I could do was go up to the courtroom and withdraw. There was just no -- and as I was coming down out of the elevator, I was going out just as Tom Sullivan was coming in. Tom Sullivan I'd met only on one other occasion when I tendered my resignation to him as U.S. Attorney because when I left to have the baby he came on as U.S. Attorney, so he was coming on just as I was going out the door, basically, so I'd only met him once but he waved and I waved back and he said [gestures]. So, I went around, and he said, "Oh, so, what're you doing these days?" And, "Oh, well," — so I told him the reapportionment story and he said, "That sounds really interesting. Send us the papers." And Tom, at that point, was a lawyer at Jenner & Block, one of the biggest law firms in Chicago and Jeff Coleman was with him, was his partner. I guess Jeff was his understudy, his second chair, and they took the case like forty going north.
They were both Democrats obviously but they thought, yes, this is the right thing to do, and they took up the case with a commitment that Dick Newhouse, also involved with this, that Dick and I stay involved, that we don't just give them the case and get lost. And we committed to do that and I remember working harder than I probably have worked on anything in my life because we had to coordinate. We'd get community people to do the computer work. We had the first program— [the] first computer program for reapportionment was written by this black guy who was a street person basically in Chicago and he sat there and did the math and we put together, because they didn't have such things. The computers were so new, but he put together a program to run the numbers, the census numbers, so we could do the case and we would spend nights sitting in my study at my house going over papers and trying to work the numbers out.
And then Ethel, who was our kind of secret spy because she was very much a part of the Machine — she had been my roommate, Ethel Alexander, but she was very much a part of the Machine — and so in fact was called as a witness against us, but the full story was that she had sat down with me with colored pencils one night and shown me the Machine dynamics of who had done what to whom, and why these lines were here and not there, and how they managed to work it out, and so that allowed us to produce a theory about the case that allowed us not only to win, but we made real history because it was the first time that a reapportionment case had been won in the North. Remember, the Voting Rights Act provision was limited just to the Southern states. It was the first time the Voting Rights Act was extended.
Well, it happened in two stages. We first had to make a pure 14th Amendment case, which was to say that there was deliberate discrimination which the speaker of the Illinois House has never forgiven me for it, because the court had to say he deliberately intended to discriminate, but then after that decision by the three-judge court, the Congress acted to extend the Voting Rights Act nationwide so the South wasn't just singled out anymore, and then under the Voting Rights Act case, a test, really the test just got easier, but it set up really the direction that the courts have followed, well, up until fairly recently, because the courts followed for a number of years in reapportionment cases. The case was Crosby v. State Board of Elections. But the really good news, I thought from that, was not only in that case we created the first Hispanic district ever, which gave rise subsequently to an Hispanic coming to Congress, but we also created additional black districts in Illinois, but as much the point, it didn't happen again. I mean, that was the last time that the party apparatus went out of their way to try to, if you will, stick it to their minority base as a way of keeping white politicians in power.
BOND: How do you go from that, to thinking that you can run against an incumbent U.S. senator, a Democrat in a Democratic state?
BRAUN: I know. I know. Well, see, I was leaving politics. It's like that Michael Coreleone joke about, you know, I keep trying to leave the Mafia but it keeps pulling me back. That's what happened with my political career — Every time I got ready to leave, it just pulled me right on back in. After the reapportionment case, everybody told me I was going to get run out of town on a rail, but that didn't happen because Harold Washington was elected Mayor and when Harold, who was also an independent who was an ally, a political ally, when he got elected Mayor, he wanted his person to be his spokesman in Springfield, so instead of getting run out, I became Assistant Majority Leader, so broke down some more because that was the first time ever you can imagine somebody that looked like me was the Assistant Majority Leader, so I did that during Harold's first term and then I was ready to leave Springfield. I was ready to leave the legislature. I was ready to leave politics, actually, because my own marriage had begun to founder.
I was ready to come back home and go and to practice law and I also had a set of experiences. Another person who came at a pivotal time, a woman by the name of Caroline Cracraft, found me through Leon and Marian DuPre. Leon DuPre was a great independent activist in Chicago politics and she signed me up for something called the European Communities Visitor Program and essentially it's something sponsored by the E.U. that lets young people who are involved in government or whatever in the community, travel and get a view of the European community. So I traveled just as my marriage was breaking up. I wound up going and spending a couple of months just kind of backpacking around in Europe, and so that had an impact, particularly later, in terms of my view and where I wound up, particularly with regard to the Senate, so anyway, and I came back ready to go into a private practice but Harold prevailed upon me. He said no, you know. Bobby Rush, in fact, had a lot to do with this. Bobby said, "We don't want to lose you to politics. It's not time yet."
BOND: Was he an alderman by then?
BRAUN: Bobby was at the time, yes, he was an alderman and I'd known Bobby from the Panther days. In fact, Bobby and Fred Hampton -- I knew Fred Hampton. One of my closest friends in those days, Christina May, had had to go underground as a Panther and so, you know, I had -- we were all kind of generationally linked to each other. And so Bobby said, "No, you can't leave, you can't leave." So Harold had the idea of me standing for county-wide office and he said, because there'd never been a black, there'd never been a woman, there'd never been an Hispanic, nobody—I mean, it had always been just kind of the old boys' network for real, and so I told them, "Okay, well, I'd do it." You know, at that point, well, why not?
So, right after I said I would and, frankly, even as I was having second thoughts about doing it, Harold died and then it was almost like you had to because he had had this -- Harold Washington had a way with words, and he announced the Dream Ticket, and the dream ticket was comprised of women and men, black, white, brown, Asian, I mean we were everybody. It was the dream ticket representing the whole community, and then, like I said, within a couple of weeks, he was gone, not even that long. So I ran for and was elected Recorder of Deeds of Cook County which was a county-wide office, and, again, I was not -- you know, I wanted to do the best job I could where I was planted so I did what I could in that office, in that county-wide office and reformed the office and I think we did some really good things there.
BRAUN: But I was going to leave, again I mean, I was going to go into the private sector and that's when the first President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. And, again, going back and reflecting on how important Thurgood Marshall had been, how important the Warren Court was, that my whole life would not have been possible had it not been for the whole series of cases that the Warren Court decided, everything starting with Hansberry v. Lee — you know, Lorraine Hansberry's parents' home started the housing desegregation; that was in the neighborhood near the high school that I attended, so Hansberry v. Lee — Brown v. Board, you've mentioned, Loving v. Virginia. I was in an interracial marriage, I mean, so you go — just everything along the way, you know, the Court was that kind of important in my own personal life, not just in kind of esoteric theoretical grounds. It was something that was very personal and I remember having — I wrote to my Senator, both Senator [Alan] Dixon and Senator [Paul] Simon and there was no question but Senator Simon was going to oppose the nomination.
Alan Dixon, however, was from — and by the way, both the senators were from the southern part of the state so it wasn't like it was a North-South kind of thing, even though Illinois very much has kind of that divide, if you will. It wasn't North-South because Paul was clear that he was going to resist the Thomas nomination. Alan, on the other hand, was being more coy about it and wouldn't tell people what he was going to do really, and the suspicion was he was going to support Thomas, but it wasn't — so I remember even having a conversation because he heard that there were a group of us out there just so outraged, particularly after the Anita Hill thing happened; I'd been against — in fact, I had done a television program before we knew about Anita Hill. I had done two of them opposing the Thomas nomination and saying, you know, we can do better for the Supreme Court. This is not a replacement for Thurgood Marshall, and then the Senate took a break.
There was the hiatus, as you recall, and then the Anita Hill allegations were made and when that happened, that just was just salt in the wound or fuel in the fire, and I remember having a face-to-face, one-on-one conversation with Senator Dixon and saying to him, you know, "You can't support this nomination. It will be a slap in the face to every woman, everybody, every black person, everybody who's supported you up until now. It will absolutely be contrary to our interests and send a horrible signal for young people who are Democrats that this party does not have its moral compass in good working order, that this party does not stand on the high ground when it comes to issues of civil rights." Well, he kind of, you know, he was known — I mean, the man's still alive, so I don't mean to disparage him, but he was known as "Al the Pal," right? He was always, "Hi, how're you doing?" and so he gave me, "Oh, you know, don't worry about it," dah dah dah, and then he turned around and voted for Clarence Thomas and then went away for a couple of days, or his phones were shut off for a few days, and the women just went crazy.
BRAUN: There was three of us who were looking at running. One was a prominent socialite. Another was a federal judge, former federal judge and me, and I was the only one who had run for office before and so the people — as the organizers came together the women, primarily from the National Organization for Women and from other women's groups got behind my candidacy and, you know, at the time, it was, "Oh, she doesn't really have a snowball's chance," but I was out there and I was running and running hard and that's how it got started and it wasn't with a real concern that I was going to win or lose, just that I was just trying to do the right thing.
BOND: And that really is the Year of the Women, after the first Year of the Women you mentioned a moment or so ago, because all over the country women are energized by the [Clarence] Thomas nomination and the votes for him and many many women are elected. Let me tell you something I remember about that race because I was in Georgia at the time. It's in Illinois. I couldn't follow it very closely, and I knew [Alan] Dixon to be kind of a hack, but I thought his concession speech was the most gracious thing I had ever heard in my life, and I was so surprised because I didn't think it would come from him. I was just taken aback by it. I think I wrote him a little congratulatory letter which is something I wouldn't do. It was just — it was the decent thing to do from someone whom you didn't expect —
BOND: Yes, at all.
BRAUN: Well, I'll tell you something that's interesting because as that race — what happened in that race and, again, people think, as a friend of mine said, folks think you were born at the Democratic Convention, but obviously all the politics has a history to it and what happened was that Dixon was challenged by not only — I was not the only challenger. There was a rich trial lawyer who just started off saying, "I'm going to spend five million dollars of my own money to beat Alan Dixon," and he got into the race and it was funny. I think Dixon was enough of a traditional public servant or politician, to use the word, that he felt more? I think he was more offended by the candidacy of this person who just decided, woke up one morning and said "I'm going to be the United States Senator," than somebody who he saw had come up through the ranks and even during the —
BOND: And he would respect that.
BRAUN: Exactly. And so even during the debates — we had a couple of debates — and this other guy was coming on like a pit bull, and I wouldn't engage in ad hominem attacks, and for me it was about the issues and so it was in a funny kind of way during the course of the debates I did not challenge him as a hack. Rather, I challenged him on the issues and stayed there whereas this other guy just kept coming at him, and it was negative campaign, negative campaign, and I think to Dixon that made a big difference and as between the two of us, I think he might've seen something. Got no small pleasure out of the fact this guy just blowing five million dollars of his own money.
BOND: Well, it was just so striking. We were watching on TV and the TV's going back and forth from these incredible victorious scenes at your campaign headquarters. I remember you standing in the middle of the crowd and doing something with your arms and [it's] really electric in Georgia to see this happening, and then they switched to him and he's trying to concede and the people in the audience, his audience, are angry and they're saying, "No, no, no," and he makes this gracious statement. I was just blown away. It was just a fabulous combination.
BRAUN: Real theater, huh?
BOND: Yeah, it was real theater, real theater. You don't see that all the time in politics.
BOND: Let me take you back a little to something you talked about a moment ago before we talked about your tenure in the Senate. And you said in this neighborhood, the Bucket of Blood neighborhood, that it was your uplifting and your brother's undoing. Why did it do that to you? Why was this experience, living in the middle of this abject poverty, and people whose lives are really going nowhere, why did it have that uplifting effect on you?
BRAUN: Well, you know, for me, I think because I saw it as — how can I put it? — as an experience from which I was supposed to learn something. I did not for a moment, although I perhaps should have been more frightened about it than I was, I didn't for a moment think that this was a permanent condition for us. I saw it as a reality that my mother and father had split up and that she could not — and she couldn't. She couldn't rent. She tried to rent, but you can imagine a single woman with four children had a hard time renting place anywhere in — I mean, she just couldn't find a place that would rent to us. It was interesting, because later as a state legislator, that was one of the first really laws that I passed was to halt discrimination against families with children on the grounds that they discriminated against us renting. And so the law is now, you know, and I think it's national now, but at the time in Illinois, anybody with more than four units in an apartment building can't say "You can't live here," just because you've got kids in the family.
And so we wound up living with my grandmother, in my grandmother's house for that reason. And my mother was at the time determined to get back on her feet, as it were, to get a house because my father wouldn't move out of the house. You see, he wouldn't leave the house that we had on Prairie and so she couldn't live there with us. And so, I mean, it was a nasty divorce but in any event, she was determined to get back on her feet and so I saw it as a temporary condition, number one; and number two, one from which I could learn something. I just wanted to — and I did make some friends but I was off doing my thing. I was in high school. I worked. I'd gotten my first job. I was a checker, a grocery store checker, so between school and work and, you know, the other kind of extracurricular things I was involved with, I was engaged and involved.
My brother, on the other hand, found society. He found comfort. He found his niche with the boys who were his age who were gang bangers and so the gang bangers were the ones that were involved with the — and John himself was not the violent type. In fact, he was gifted, not only brilliant in that he was a very smart guy or, you know, intellectually brilliant, I thought, but also he was blessed with the kind of personality that gets along with everybody. You know, there are people who everybody likes and who gets along with everybody and nobody's ever sorry to see them come in a room. I've never been one of those people, by the way. I wish I were, but John was always that kind of easy going and so he just kind of got pulled along with this crowd of folks who were just not — who were up to no good, as they say. And he got involved with the gangs and from being involved with the gangs, he got involved with the drugs, and from being involved with the drugs, he got involved with, you know, not — dropping out of high school, he dropped out of high school and it was just downhill from there. He never went to prison. I guess that's the only good thing that came of it, but he might as well have because his brain just got so fried over time that by the time he died, you know, it was almost a blessing at that point because he'd had breakdowns and everything since that point.
BOND: Let me take you back over all these moments in life, this experience living in this neighborhood and knowing you're going to get out, going to college, dropping out and coming back, deciding to go to law school, all of these. At some point, I don't know if you said this to yourself, but you had to think of yourself that "I am a leader. I'm a person whom other people listen to and if I suggest a course of action, they're going to consider it seriously." There had to be some point in your life where this? Are you shaking your head no?
BOND: It never happened?
BRAUN: You know something, I've grappled with this question because I've never — that's not how I saw myself and I saw myself as someone who set out to do a thing, whatever that thing was, and so for me public service has real meaning. I mean, it's about being a public servant, about using the skills, the talent, the training, the education, the exposure that I have to do good. That sounds really corny but that really is how I've always seen myself and so I've seen myself as a public servant more than anything else, up until recently.
BOND: But at the same time, when you get elected to the legislature, that means that a lot of people had the choice between Joe and Mary and Carol and they've chosen Carol. And in that process, they have made you a leader. You are now a member of the Lower House of the Illinois legislature, all of your colleagues are leaders. Why aren't you a leader?
BRAUN: Because I see my job as doing the best I can to work harder anybody else to get the job done, whatever that job description is, for the people who chose me over everybody else.
BOND: Is it the word that you don't feel comfortable with?
BRAUN: Maybe. Maybe.
BOND: Well, I can't think of another one right now. But at the same time, in effect, by the fact of your election, you've been anointed in the sense we're talking about. But there must be some time when you say to yourself "These people chose me to speak for them and therefore I've got to speak for them." That's why you introduced legislation to eliminate discrimination against families with children. That's what you do. Do you ever consider this, think about this, that these people chose you to do this and now you've got to live up to their aspirations for you?
BRAUN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, that's the motivation, you know, that you — and this is kind of back to my mother's, you know, do the best job you can where you're planted. When I was a state legislator, I tried to do the best I could to be the best state legislator I could be. When I was Recorder of Deeds I wanted to be the best Recorder of Deeds ever, if I could and to do the best job I could where I was planted and the same thing when I got to the United States Senate. I tried to be the best senator that I could be.
BOND: In the Recorder of Deeds office, more than the legislature, more than the senator, it's just you?
BRAUN: That's right.
BOND: You're the person?
BOND: There aren't these others. It's just you, so you're in charge of all that and you talked about reforming the office, making it a better office. You had to think then that you've been chosen to do this, there's a mandate for you to do this and therefore you have a responsibility to do it. How did you weigh that responsibility? Some people would've said, "Well, I can pretend to do it. Nobody will know, who pays attention to the Recorder of Deeds?" but instead you tackled it.
BOND: Why'd you tackle it? You could've gotten by. You could've done nothing.
BRAUN: Right. But that wasn't what — that's why the people voted for me. I mean, that was my mandate. My mandate wasn't to go there and to be large and in charge. My mandate wasn't to go there and put my name on the door and go on vacation. I was chosen to do a job. And let me tell you my favorite story about the Recorder of Deeds years, although I've got lots of them.
I hadn't had a vacation since my election when the — you may have even read about this — they were doing some underground work in Chicago. Chicago's got tunnels under the Loop and they were doing some construction and they broke through one of the tunnels and the underside of the entire Loop began to flood. It was really a big deal, it was huge, and so this was like catastrophic because our books and records, some of our books and records were kept in the second? There were sub-basements under the County building where my office was, and one on the side of preparedness. I had trained my people. We'd actually had fire drills in my office and I wanted to train everybody in case of an emergency, this is what we do, and I was on my way to vacation. I was in the car headed to O'Hare Airport when I get a phone call: "the sub-basements are flooding. They've just busted through and there's water filling the bottom of the County building," and I'm going, "And uhh?" And Ethel, who at the time was working with me, Ethel said, "Well, you can't go on vacation." I said, "What do you mean, I can't go on vacation?" I said, "I've got my ticket, I'm ready to go." She said, "But there's water coming in," and I understood immediately. I told the driver, turn the car around. I turned around, luggage in the trunk, and went back to the office because I had to man my post. I mean it was a command kind of situation.
BOND: You were in charge. You were the leader.
BRAUN: I was in charge, that's right.
BOND: You were the leader.
BRAUN: And so I had my people go. We went and got our documents from the sub-basement and nothing got wet. We didn't lose anything and I got everybody out of the building.
BOND: So, now you get to the U.S. Senate and that's an entirely different experience. It's a unique experience in American life, and not only are you a woman. There'd been women before, but you're the first black woman and I read some place where you thought people couldn't talk about this, couldn't mention this because they're so unused to discussing race. What did your colleagues say about race, about you, or did they just act like you weren't black?
BRAUN: Oh, no, no, no, I mean, if anything, race was the 800-pound gorilla in the room always. When I was sworn in, some civil rights leaders, who will remain nameless, who had nothing to do with my election, came, showed up and, you know, taking credit for my election.
BOND: I know their names.
BRAUN: And we were all sitting on a stage and people were giving — and Strom Thurmond showed up and one of my girlfriends in fact started to boo and, of course, the crowd of people who came were just entirely too civilized to let that happen. They shut her up, shushed her, and everybody was standing there literally in shocked disbelief because Strom at this point as you can imagine was 9,000 years old and barely — I mean, if he knew he was in the Senate I would be surprised— but he made a point to come to say a few words at the podium at my swearing in and I laughed about it afterwards because it was so funny. It was part of him, you know, this is the new face of Strom Thurmond that he was showing at the time. So race was the 800-pound gorilla in all of it and did play a role and, frankly, I didn't realize until — you know, you learn from experience, but there was some aspects of my tenure that were absolutely tinged and colored by race. Aspects is the wrong word. It's expectations. There were expectations having to do with race that I didn't fully appreciate until, you know, obviously after the fact.
BOND: I want to get into some questions about vision and so on, but of all the things you did in the Senate, the things people are going to remember is your clash with Jesse Helms and I'm curious as to how you came across this little item in legislation, and it had to be small and innocuous appearing.
BRAUN: It was.
BOND: How'd you come across that, and when did you make a decision: "I'm going to do something about this?" This is his attempt to protect the patent that the Daughters of the Confederacy have on the symbol of the Confederacy, not the flag, but the symbol. How'd you see that and how'd you decide what to do?
BRAUN: Well, you know, again, it may sound corny, I was just doing my job. It came up first in committee. My staffer, we review the bills. My staffer's name was Jeff Gibbs. He's a lawyer out in California now and we were going over the bills that were coming up and he's read them off, dah dah dah, and he said, "But, Senator, this patent for Olestra" — you know, the fat drug, the fat substitute? — he says, "This patent for Olestra has a Confederate flag attached to it." I'm going, "What? How did this happen?" And we found that the Confederate flag patent that had been held by the United Daughters of the Confederacy had actually been renewed twice before. They'd had it since the 1920s. And I'm saying to myself, you know — and then I went into my lawyer mode: "What do they need a patent for on the flag?" You think in terms of copyright if anything, but not a patent. Well, so I went to the chairman of the committee and I said, "This part is not acceptable. I mean, you know, number one, the Confederate flag doesn't belong on a bill. It doesn't belong with a patent, to begin with. Second, it doesn't belong on this bill; and third, you know, I cannot in conscience support it and I'd like your help in opposing it." And the chairman who actually has been very good on issues of race ever since as far as I'm aware started going, "Homina, homina, homina," shifting in his chair and I couldn't figure out why, you know. It was just such a no-brainer to me and like, Why is this complicated for you? Well, it turned out that it was complicated in part because it was Strom's bill.
BOND: Helm's bill?
BRAUN: No, it was Strom's bill.
BOND: Oh, Strom's bill and Jesse Helms was carrying it for him.
BRAUN: Jesse Helms had nothing to do with it at this point. That was another piece of the whole thing. It was Strom's bill. And the other members of the committee, since he was senior and I'd just got there, didn't want to offend him, so I actually had to lobby it in committee. And I lobbied. I talked to all the members. I got my votes lined up and I won. We stripped it off the bill in committee and I thought that was the end of it. Then, on the day — again, back to race again — we were in committee on the confirmation hearings for Justice Breyer and Orrin Hatch, who actually on a personal level I got along with very well, started arguing against — the issue came up about freedom of choice and Orrin began to make the argument that Roe v. Wade, the decision on choice, was the legal equivalent of Plessy v. Ferguson.
Now, you may have heard that since, but at the time I was absolutely shocked, you know, Plessy being the decision that a black man has no rights that the white man need respect. So I'm sitting there going, "What?" I was just absolutely horrified that he would say such a thing but then I was really nervous because I'm thinking: "Okay, I'm a freshman on the committee, this is one of my first Supreme Court Justice confirmations, this is a big deal, it's on television, oh, my God."
But I just couldn't let it pass and I said "a point of clarification," and I got into a legal discussion — argument — with Orrin Hatch about whether Roe v. Wade and Plessy v. Ferguson were comparable and trying to keep my voice modulated because I was really — I mean, infuriated and insulted. So I'm going through this, and I'm really nervous and in the middle of this, my staffer, Jeff Gibbs, again, came over with a note that said, "Jesse Helms has just taken to the floor to revive the Confederate flag patent." And I sat there thinking at that moment — I'll never forget, I said "What did I do today to deserve this?" It's like, "Lord, what did I do to deserve this day?"
So I had to get up, leave the hearing and go across the street, you know, go over to the Capitol to take on Jesse Helms. And if you review the proceedings and all, the first part of my argument on the floor was really as dispassionate and as legalistic and formalistic as I could make it. It was, you know, "Mr. Speaker, this has already been decided by committee. It came up — dah dah dah." I mean, it was just a legal argument, thinking that the rules would apply, you know, the committee's already decided this, for Jesse Helms to come back and try to revive it was just out of form, and then that it shouldn't be a patent in any event and, I mean, again, dah dah dah, here are the arguments. And when I looked up and the Senate had voted to restore the patent, I was incensed. It was like, "Oh, no, this can't be!" and that's when, if you will, the real debate — and when Paul Simon and Joe Biden and some of the others, particularly Joe, because Joe had been — Joe was on the committee and had known the issue. So when the committee members first came out — Pat Leahy — when they started coming around to say "This is why the committee decided…" and then the debate broadened from just purely a legalistic one into the import, the meaning of the Confederate flag in modern-day America and by the time — how can I blank on his name — the judge from Alabama?
BOND: [Jeff] Sessions?
BRAUN: No, before Sessions. We used to call him "Judge" and that's all that's come to my mind. I'll think of it in a minute, but he got up and said "My grandfather was a general in the Confederate Army…"
BOND: Howell Heflin.
BRAUN: Right, Howell Heflin, and when Judge Heflin got up and said, "My grandfather was a general in the Confederate Army and we're proud of our Confederate heritage, but this symbol has no place in this society today because it inflames passions and reminds African, you know, black Americans of their pain." And when he did that, I think he must've brought a whole — to the extent that we had Southern support at all, he was really the logjam, the emotional logjam breaker, in all of that and that's how it was in the Senate. We wound up winning 78, 70 — I don't know what the votes exactly was, but it was better than 70 votes.
BOND: In all of these things, in that fight, when you served as ambassador, which is entirely different from being a senator or legislator, and when you're in the legislature and even before that, Recorder of Deeds, whatever it is, is there some kind of vision you have that you bring to your work? You talked before about doing the best where you're planted, but is there a vision that covers everything that you've done or does it change over time? Do you have a different vision now, say, than you did when you were a young state legislator?
BRAUN: Well, it hasn't exactly changed in the really broad outlines. It's changed obviously in the specifics and in the details, but in the most sweeping generalization I can make, it's like that old gospel — I don't know if it's gospel or blues to be honest, but that old song about "You've got to serve somebody." You know, it might be the devil and it might be the Lord, but you've got to serve somebody and that really has been my — for me, I have found my life path as one of a challenge of being able to serve the higher values, to serve in ways that give my life meaning, as have been weighed in the forces for good. And you know, I used to tell my son that Dr. King had an expression about [how] the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice, and I used to tell my son but that depends on people making it bend towards justice and if we don't weigh in, each of us in our way, in whatever endeavor it is that we undertake to bend it towards justice, to make it go in the direction of truth, to lead it in the direction of the higher values, then it won't. It's just that simple and so everybody has to choose, has to chose how you want to come out. And you can either see your ego as being wrapped up in, you know, wearing 30-karat diamond rings or in trying to make in difference in the world in which you are fortunate enough to live.
BOND: Now, even though you resist this characterization of yourself as a leader, I want to ask you questions about how leaders are made. It's been suggested they're made one of three ways: number one, great people cause great events; or, number two, movements make leaders; or, number three, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders who are appropriate for the times. Does any of those fit you, you think, or a combination?
BRAUN: I think the third one — the confluence of unpredictable events. I mean, when you consider that as a woman who is also black, if it were not for a lot of efforts to open civil society up in a lot of different ways, then none of my story would've been possible. As a black, my story wouldn't have been possible if Brown v. Board of Education hadn't made it possible for me to get a quality education. As a woman, I wouldn't have been able to go to law school if the times hadn't changed to allow for that kind of openness, and you can put whichever shoe on first. As a poor person, I couldn't have gotten to the United States Senate — when I say poor person, I mean, in the scheme of things, couldn't have gotten to the United States Senate if the times had not gotten to the point where people said, "Well, you know, we've got enough billionaires and millionaires, we'll open this up a little bit…"
BOND: And is it likely that had there not risen this outrage over the nomination of Clarence Thomas that you might not have been in the Senate either?
BRAUN: Probably not. Well, I wouldn't have run. I wouldn't have run. The timing and the circumstances would not have — I mean, that was not — it wasn't a function of personal ambition on my part. I wasn't looking to be, you know, "When I grow up I want to be a senator." That was not in my thinking but rather, again, the circumstances came together to make that the logical decision.
BOND: Now, some of the commentary we've read about you says that part of your legitimacy as a leader is grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement. Now, in the case we've just discussed, the Confederate symbol, that surely it's your rhetoric that draws people to change their minds about something they'd already made up their mind, they'd already voted on. They're already voted for it and you've made them change their mind. But is that so about you, do you think?
BRAUN: Well, I've had to use words. That's what a legislator does. The difference between being a legislator either at the state level or in the United States Senate or being Recorder of Deeds or ambassador is?
BOND: Or candidate for president.
BRAUN: Or candidate for president. Well, no, candidate for president is more like being a legislator, but the executive positions, you see, you basically tell people what you want to have them do, you know: do this, do that, this is my idea. I shared it a little bit when I was Recorder of Deeds. I had a blue ribbon committee that came together and made recommendations for change, but really, if I had decided to have a committee or no committee, that's the way it would be. The legislative process is one that's very different because it requires persuasion and compromise and understanding.
BOND: And consensus.
BRAUN: Consensus, exactly.
BOND: I've seen over and over again, in things we've collected about your writing, talking about the necessity to seek consensus, to make a consensus. That's an important part of your leadership style?
BRAUN: Well, it has to be, because without consensus, without having people agree on moving in a direction together, everybody's frustrated and/or wasting their time. You have to talk to people in ways they can hear. I mean, a lot of times, you know, people want the same things in life. I mean, everybody really at the end of the day wants the same things. How they see their interests is where the divisions start to come in, and if you are a legislator and you want to get somebody to your point of view, then what you want to do is go and talk to them about your vision in words they can understand and hear.
I'll tell you a quick story and this is from my state legislative days. This is actually another one of my favorite stories and I'm getting a chance to put my stories on tape with you… When I was in the state legislature, the poor people in Illinois had not received a cost-of-living increase in over ten years. The guy I succeeded who had stepped down had been trying to get a cost-of-living increase for welfare recipients for ten years and had always failed. And with inflation, we'd gone through the years of almost 20 percent inflation, it was really hard times for the poorest of the poor in Illinois, so I got down there and filed a bill calling for a cost-of-living increase. Nobody had bothered to tell me that the way you pass legislation— because I was that kind of new— was that you went to the leadership, and the leadership told you what they were going to pass and let you carry a bill for them. Or you went and said "I've got this idea," and they said yes or no.
I just thought I had to go and convince my colleagues to vote for it.
Well, there were 177 people in the Illinois House under the old system. I actually made up — pulling back on my U.S. attorney training, I had folders for every legislator that said how many poor people there were in their district, how many aged, blind and disabled, how many dah dah dah, you know, and what the situation was in their district. And I went around and talked to 159 of them. I wish I still had the little check sheet, because I'd go and I'd talk to somebody and check them off, and one of the people I talked to was a guy named Webber Borchers, and Webber Borchers was one of these real rightwing nut cases, frankly. He was a John Bircher who had actually spent time in jail for having tapped some of the phones of some of the leftist activists on the University of Illinois campus. I mean, he was that kind of out there, but I didn't know this because I had done the homework on the district, but I had not done as much homework as I should have on the individual legislators. So I went and I sat down with Representative Borchers and I tried to talk to him about why he was a Republican, why he should support this because of the poor people in his district.
He says, "I can't vote for that because the people in my district are buying lobsters with food stamps and driving Cadillac cars on welfare," and he'd just go the whole — and I said, "But, no, Mr. Representative Borchers, look at this, you've got these many blind people in your district, you've got these many children," and I made the whole argument and he'd, "No, no." So I went on and —
Well, when the bill came up, when the bills were tallied, lo and behold, on the board, I had won and, of course, it was shock waves. It had made the news. I mean, it was like a big deal, "Like, oh, my goodness, we've passed? Now this is going to be on the governor's desk. What's the governor going to do?" It's passed the House where it had never passed, so this is great news. And one of my colleagues, a Republican, Susan Catania who helped worked the Republican side, she came over and we were celebrating in the aisles we were so happy, and Webber Borchers who was kind of crippled came over on his cane and he said, "Ms. Braun, I didn't vote for your bill. I just couldn't see my way clear to help them welfare cheats in my district take any more taxpayers' money. But I almost did, because you're the second-nicest colored lady I have ever met. Now, the first nicest has been working for us for 35 years, but you're the second-nicest colored lady." And, of course, Susan turned green, like, "Oh, my God," but I tell this story to say that even for Webber Borchers there was a point of reference and a set of interests that made sense to him. Now, his other prejudices may have overcome that, but my job as I saw it, was to make the case to him, and to make the case to enough others to win the legislature back.
BOND: Let me tell you a quick story. When I was in the Georgia House we had a bill to vote an appropriation for autistic children and I asked the guy sitting next to me who was an old veteran guy, I said, "What about this?" He said, "Well, you probably should vote for it." So the vote came up; I voted for it. He voted against it. I said, "Why'd you vote against it?" He said, "Bond, we have too many artistic children in Georgia now."
BOND: Do you have a kind of a general philosophy that guides you through life that may be different from the vision, the leadership vision, a philosophy?
BRAUN: For me, the philosophy is back to Edna's advice. I just try to do the best job I can where I'm planted. I mean, every day — we are not guaranteed tomorrow, and every day— you know, good, bad or indifferent, and I have my bad days like everybody else— but every day you have to find something that you can be proud of and that you want to celebrate, and that's what I strive to do every day. And I reckon if you do it on a day-by-day by day-by-day basis it really is in the small steps. It's not in the big brushes. It's in what you do, how you treat that individual that you run into, how you treat somebody who's bigger than you, how you treat somebody that's ostensibly smaller than you. You know, that's where the measure of a person is taken, so issues of character and honor— and it sounds corny again, but that's what motivates me.
BOND: How does race consciousness affect your race? You talked about someone, your father, I think, was a race man. Do you see yourself as someone who advances issues of race, or issues of society, or both, and is there a distinction between them? And is there such a thing as someone who transcends race?
BRAUN: I think that we all have to get to the point of transcending race. The real issue in my mind is the liberation of the human spirit, in whatever package it comes in, whether it's a black package or a female package or an Asian package or Hispanic package, a poor package, a disabled package, a gay package, a straight package. The packaging is less important than what it is that individual has to contribute and tapping the genius of that is really what this whole — this experience, this republic is supposed to be about. That's what makes us different. That's where the beacon of light comes from, the notion that every individual is a reflection of God and that the goal of society is to let those reflections have full play in the society as a whole.
And so for me, maybe again, my life, I'm born into a body: I'm a black woman, I'm real clear about that. I also know that while race is localized, how race is perceived is a local issue, really, in the scheme of things. Gender is universal. Gender is more universal as an issue than race is, but both of those things really speak to the willingness of a society to open itself up to the contributions that people who might be female have to make, that people who might be black have to make and celebrating, celebrating what that is.
I don't want to have to be black and not act that way. I don't want to have to submerge my cultural background. I don't want to have to put 43rd & Berkeley in a closet to be accepted by somebody. I want to be able to say, "Hey, look, this is the sum total of my experiences, and I'm going to put that on the table because you know what, with these experiences, you will be able to make a better set of decisions." You know, I want to put the sum total of being a girl, you know, wearing pinkish purple, not ashamed to talk about my diet, I mean, put that as much as part of me as the intellectual side or as the side that can read a balance sheet. I mean, I want to be able to bring all of that to bear on the contribution I have to make, whether it is in the public sector or as a private citizen.
BOND: Talk about differences. Do you think you have a different leadership style when you're dealing with groups that are all black or mixed race or predominantly white? Are you different in these?
BRAUN: No. And that for me is— it's like the old, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, etc." For me it's just a lot easier to be the same and so whether I'm talking to a group of church ladies on the southside of Chicago or farmers in Iowa, I will use the same language. Now, I may talk about different issues. The church ladies may not be concerned about soy bean loan rates and genetically modified corn. They may not care about that. I'll speak to their issues, but in terms of the words I use and how I comport myself and my demeanor, it's always, you know, I am what I am.
BOND: Isn't there likely to be the occasion where you say something and the church ladies say, "Amen, that's right," and you say something, and the farmers don't say anything, even though they agree with what you're saying.
BRAUN: Oh, yeah.
BOND: Does that create in you a different response?
BRAUN: You know, I'll tell you something, that is actually — that actually touches on what I see as one of my own weaknesses which is, I have and am working on having a better sense of how others see me because, again, because I say the same thing to the church ladies as the farmers, I have to, you know — my antenna has to be a little better in terms of what it is that they hear when they hear the words. Let me give you an example.
This gets back to the Senate days and back to welfare again. Pat Moynihan was also a friend and mentor for me. He was very nice to me when I was in the Senate and he was very opposed to Clinton's welfare reform for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was, as he put it, it was destroying the social safety net that the country had had since the 1930s and I also was vehemently opposed to the President's welfare reform and because it was just wrong in my opinion. I still say it's wrong. I told him I thought it was it was wrong, so that's not, you know — but what I came to — and I did everything. I mean, I had historical vignettes of what the country was like when the states ran welfare, the orphan trains out of New York and all the rest. I mean, I did every aspect of the argument I was able to put together.
It wasn't until midway through the debate that it occurred to me that I may as well have been talking into the toilet as the Senate chamber on this issue because what my colleagues heard was a black woman standing up saying "Where's mine?" you know, whatever the words coming out, what was being perceived was here's this black female, the prototypical welfare mother standing up here saying, "Why're you taking away my benefits?" as opposed to here's a senator arguing in behalf of poor children throughout the United States and what kind of nation we are, how we define ourselves as a country, as a community, around the issue of poverty. And so it hurt me. It really — I mean, on a real fundamental level, that realization hurt greatly because I realized then that no matter what I said, if I had been white and male making the same arguments, it would've resonated differently. If I'd been white and female making the same arguments it would've resonated differently.
BOND: Is it then that you think it may be impossible for you to get away from race?
BRAUN: Oh, you can never get away.
BOND: Because of how you look, and how I see you, others see you, that race is always at the forefront of perception and that perception in turn colors what you say and what I hear?
BRAUN: Exactly. Race is, again, it's the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It defines the context of the conversation and that's just a reality. And as we change the reality— and that reality has been changing. I mean, the great victory in my mind of the civil rights movement was not just integration. The great victory of it was that it made racism unpopular, public racism. Now, there're people who privately will say what they say and still tell the racist jokes and everything, but the larger society frowns on that conduct now. That's very different than, you know, a hundred years ago. That's very different than what was going on at the turn of the last century. And that great victory, of course, then allows us to get to the next level, whatever that will be. And so I think it is probably a continuum of moving, and progress is linear, but the fact is we're in a different place on race now than we were in this country 50 years ago when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, but we're not where we can get to.
BOND: That's a great segue to one of the last questions. William Allen writes, "Thinking in terms of race or gender, until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we're going to continue to harm this country." I guess what he's asking, is there a danger of continued divisiveness if we focus on the concept of black leadership as opposed to leadership?
BRAUN: You know, it sounds good, but he misses the fact that unless you acknowledge that the gorilla is in the room, you can't clean it. You know, you can't rearrange the furniture. You can't — the reality is that without patronizing, without segregating, without diminishing any one group's contributions, really our Americans hopefully will get to the point where color and gender and sexual orientation and ethnicity will be equally celebrated without being demeaned. But we haven't gotten there yet and, frankly, have not yet had the candid conversation about race in this country that I believe is absolutely necessary to liberate it.
You can't get to the point that you want to get to, pretending that there are not differences and problems and pain, but also opportunity all wrapped up in the issue of our history. To ignore it is to ignore reality, and so my view is without just pandering to pain— because you don't want to do that either. You don't want to, you know, just keep picking at a scab, but rather say, you know, I fell down when I was 12 and I've got this big scar on my leg, you know. Now, to deal with the scar, I'm going to do A, B, C, D, and E, but that's not going to stop me from walking and that's not going to stop me from being a whole person, and hopefully we'll get to the point in this country— you know, we're sitting here in Thomas Jefferson's vision, right? His architecture for this school, this university— and I was joking earlier, I said if Thomas Jefferson walked past I'd want to say, "You know, Mr. Jefferson, there's a couple of things I'd like to talk with you about."
You know, here was a brilliant vision and a vision, frankly, that was very much grounded in morality that spoke to the liberation of the human spirit and spoke to people being able to contribute to community based on the best of what they had to give, flying in the face of the contradictions of his slaveholding, his begetting children by his slave mistress, which for all intents and purposes was exploitation. She couldn't have said "No," you know, not to mention how the women in his life were relegated. I mean, you know, the women weren't much better off. I mean, for all intents and purposes, they weren't chattel, but not too far removed from it. And the poor — I mean, you take all those things. You put it as well— how can you talk about liberating human spirit and you've got all this yuck going on over here?
Well, I think that what you have to do is acknowledge what has been and try to move in the direction of your vision and the vision is one of unity around issues of liberty and justice and truth, but until you get there to ignore the reality is to ignore really, it is to shortchange your opportunity to get there.
BOND: In past years we've been used to a certain kind of leadership and even in recent years that kind of leadership has changed. It's not the Martin Luther King standard altogether anymore. What about in the future? Are there going to be new kinds of leaders that society is going to demand that we have? What kinds of people are they going to be?
BRAUN: You know, I don't have a crystal ball, and it's a very interesting question because I was joking yesterday, just as recently as yesterday with a friend, and I said, you know, "We have reached the point in history where both George Orwell and Marshall McLuhan look like prophets." The nature of so many of the things that characterize civil society has changed. Just as Abraham Lincoln — you know, they say Abraham Lincoln couldn't be elected today because he was too tall, lanky and ugly, right? Today you have to be telegenic. Today you have to able to speak a different kind of language. You have to understand celebrity. You have to be able to — I mean, there's a set of different demands and that change in the society, the information technologies and the like, is by definition going to change leadership and change the people who the public will embrace as leaders and what they will be, I don't know.
BOND: Have you any idea of how we as a whole society, how can we foster, create and nurture leaders for the future? What can we do we're not doing now?
BRAUN: Education, education, education, education. The thing that frightens me the most about where we are as an American society is what has happened with education and particularly the availability of educational opportunity from the very earliest years to all children. The whole ideal of quality universal public education is very much on the bubble, very much challenged, very much at risk now. And that's a whole set of conversations we could talk forever on that. That's one set, but as much the point, going beyond that, even for higher education, young people now are having to spend so much money to afford higher education. It's changing the nature of who can access it.
I mean, we're almost back to what Thomas Jefferson had, which was the elite got to go to college and everybody else, you know, just worked. Then you've got the role of the media, and this is not a negative way, but media in the generic, larger sense. I mean, people — The community as a whole gets the vast majority of its information from something that sees value in dumbing down the conversation. And so when you're having conversations with people in a democratic system, remember, that depends on voters making a judgment, with people who don't have even the basic information with which to analyze developments in their lives. What you've set up— and this is back to Marshall McLuhan and George Orwell— what you've set up is a society that is very volatile and very much capable, very much amenable to demagoguery and to folks just getting up and making a pretty speech and riling up the passions and getting people going and sending them over a cliff.
BOND: I thought that was the last question, but I've got to ask this one. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
BRAUN: I'm always an optimist. I'm always an optimist. I have to be because the pessimism is too depressing, I mean it just — you get pessimistic and you just get immobilized by it. And my optimism comes because I know enough young people out there who really — my son, by way of example, I have no idea where Matt gets his news from. He's a computer geek and we talk about… and he'll say something, there'll be some specific bit of information that goes right to the heart of what it is we're talking about. I'll say, "How did you know that?" "Oh, I picked it up." He reads news sources on his computer that I've never heard of. He blogs or something. I don't know. That's another universe.
BOND: It's age-related.
BRAUN: It's age-related, but the point is that here our young people who actually do have the vision, actually can sort the wheat from the chaff, understand when it's BS versus — I shouldn't have said that on tape, but you know what I mean — who understand that, and can see it, and as long as they're around, then I guess the future will be in good hands.
BOND: Well, on that optimistic note, thank you for being with us.
BRAUN: Julian, I can't thank you enough. Thank you for inviting me.
BOND: My pleasure.