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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
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BOND: Armstrong Williams, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
WILLIAMS: Thank you for inviting me.
BOND: We're very pleased to have you here. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision. Now, it occurred five years before you were born, but what was the discussion, if any, in your family or what was the feeling about what this might mean?
WILLIAMS: My parents had quite a different take on the government and the issues of race. My father, actually in the discussions, actually thought it was ridiculous that the highest court in the land even had to come to the conclusion or discussion that separate but equal was immoral. He always saw things in terms of moral and immoral. And they'd had the discussion to make a decision to try to make the facilities equal. And his attitude was, "Son, you know, they can try for the next twenty or thirty years to make the facilities equal, but the only way that my children are going to have a quality education is that I got to ensure that it happens. I got to make sure that I'm involved with what happens before they ever enter kindergarten -- by reading to them, having them read to us, reading the newspaper, going to the library. I will never trust the government to ever educate my children or to make me believe that they are going to make people equal. How are you going to have from human slavery to de jure segregation and now this Brown v. Board and then we are going to get into the Civil Rights Movement and how do you think that we are going to be equal? You cannot legislate the mentality of people when people thought in the beginning that you are unequal and therefore you are not worthy to sit next to their kid because that kid was white or something else." As he discussed it, he discussed it in a different way. "I've got to make sure that my children are educated and have a better chance at life than what I had."
BOND: Where did this idea come from in his family? Why do you think he felt that way?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, my father and mother had deeply-held Christian values. My father often talked about the stories that were passed along to them about how people who considered themselves to be God-fearing would go to church on Sunday, but yet after church could have a picnic and cut up their brethren into pieces and place them in a jar and have just left the altar of God and how could anyone who claimed they believed in God, their actions were just that of brutality, something that goes against all the teachings that they proclaimed to believe in. And so his attitude was, is that it's going to be quite some time before you can ever change the hearts of men who allowed a Constitution in place, that in ideas and in principles, we were equal, but they did not have the moral turpitude or the moral courage to stand up and say, "We have to learn from the brutal dictatorships of the past to make people have equal access. We don't have to give someone an advantage, but don't give them a disadvantage." So my father never had a whole lot of faith in the government and had a whole lot of faith with people who subscribed to a certain faith and who had certain power. There was nothing in his history that would make him believe that they would do anything that was good in the long run. He figured long after he would leave this earth that things would be better, but he did not see it happening within the next thirty or forty years during that time.
BOND: But at the same time when you write about the Brown decision on the fiftieth anniversary and the fiftieth anniversary year, you write that "life was far better for my brothers and sisters than when I came along." How did your brothers and sisters -- you're from a family of nine -- how did they benefit, if at all, from the Brown decision?
WILLIAMS: Well, separate but equal, the notion was is that when the decision was rendered, is that you can no longer believe that just because you're separate, you've got to make you equal. Many of these institutions were still unequal, unequal in terms of what they had access to, in terms of the teachers, and even just in the rural part of the world that we lived in. I mean, we did not have access to the kind of tax base as a lot of people who had a certain kind of affluency had. Obviously my father thought it was a good thing that people were beginning to understand what many of them had known for a long time -- that racism and discrimination and bigotry of any kind is a moral sin and the stain of this country and that we all would have to pay a price for the oppressor and the oppressed.
I think my father's attitude was, what he learned was that as the government was giving all this rhetoric about making people equal, what he needed to do was to find a farm, find an institution where he could raise his children, sort of like an incubator so that he can influence their value system, their work ethic, their discipline, their routine, to teach them how to work, to teach them how to fish as he was building his farm. You know, my parents had a two hundred fifty acre farm that they bought back during the 1940s. That farm still is in the family today, so my father felt the best weapon to bigotry and discrimination would be being truly free because my father grew up partly on a sharecropper's farm and he talked about the abuse, the humiliation.
He told the story about how his brother -- I don't know if you know this, you may know this, I mean, you are well read and you certainly have far more experience than most people on this issue -- is that I remember the story about his uncle who had worked on this man's farm and they only paid them once a year was when they were paid -- once a year. And he worked on this farm for a year, and I had a friend of mine recall this story for me recently and it reminded me of something that my father said, and at the end of the year, the owner of the farm said, "We owe you about forty six dollars." I mean, it was just an outrage. I mean, this man had worked. I mean, the blisters, the sores, for an entire year and for someone to say that you were only owed less than a hundred dollars was an insult. And from those lessons from my father watching his brothers, he said, "You know, I may have to endure that for some time, but the children I bring into the world will never endure that kind of humiliation and abuse because it could just destroy their self-esteem. I never even realized that every opportunity in America could possibly be their opportunity."
BOND: Before we began taping, we talked for just a moment and you said that in your father's family, you couldn't trace back to slavery.
BOND: But in your mother's family, you could?
WILLIAMS: Not only to slavery, but to --
BOND: Native Americans, American Indians.
WILLIAMS: Yes, American Indians because my grandmother was a full-blood Cherokee Indian and so in my father's side of the family, they were very industrious. They were landowners. They were entrepreneurs. They were farmers. His sisters were a seamstresses. They were entrepreneurs and they were able to accumulate masses of land that was never taken away from them in the family. In fact, the land is still with my cousins today, but my father broke away from that because he had a dispute with his brothers and he decided that he would have to go out and secure his own farm and it's funny how he was able to do this and he told this story often.
There was this guy by the name of Mr. Buck Davis and my father approached Mr. Davis and said, "You know, Mr. Davis, I don't necessarily want to be in business with my brothers. I want to have a family. I want to grow a farm. I want to have an opportunity for them to experience freedom and to build wealth and to possibly run for office some day and they cannot do this working for the man." And Mr. Davis said, "Well, James" -- that was my father's name -- "What can I do you for?" He said, "Well, Mr. Davis, I want -- there is this plot of land over on Davis Lane near [Centenary]. There are about fifty acres that I can buy and it costs about eight hundred dollars. Now, if you loan me that eight hundred dollars, I promise you that in the year's end from today, I will pay you back your eight hundred dollars."
Because during that time, as my father told the story, a black man could not buy land so he had to get this white man to front for him. And Mr. Davis said, "Well, I appreciate what you're saying, but," he said, "I'm going to loan you the money." And so he loaned my father the money and my father assumed he was getting about forty or fifty acres of land, but he was able to buy a hundred acres of land with this eight hundred dollars during that time. And the funny thing that my father tells me that happened in the community -- black people were upset with him for purchasing the land because they assumed that my father was trying to be better than they were.
BOND: He was getting ahead of himself.
WILLIAMS: That's right. And white people were upset because they felt my father did not know his place and this white man fronted for him and they would have never sold my father this land because the land was owned by white owners at the time. So my father's attitude from that experience, he said, "Son, don't get caught up in the black way of thinking and the white way of thinking. When people have power and they have control over you, they are all the same. So don't ever think that only white people can be racist and discriminate and abuse power. All people can do it. Just look over the world and you will see that as time progresses, you'll begin to understand that people are the same world over. Never get caught up in judging people based on their race, the hue of their skin." He said, "All you do in life is extend your hand and say 'Hi. My name is Armstrong Williams.' You judge a man how they treat you, based on their character and their values and you get the trust in that way."
BOND: Now you talk about your father having broken away from his brother who owned land and this long tradition of land owning on his side of the family. Now, that's not unusual, but it is relatively rare. How did that come about?
WILLIAMS: Well, my grandfather, my father's father, Colier, parents had land.
BOND: Where did their land come from?
WILLIAMS: Their land came from their parents. There were always -- you know, it comes from a background where they were one of the few free black families in the South that owned land, but not only owned land and I am going to reveal this. They also had -- we wouldn't call it slavery -- but they would call them indentured servants. They had people working on their farms. And they would say that they treated their indentured servants far better than the man treated his slaves. So they were able to pass this along and they were able to keep their land.
BOND: But every black person whose family can go back more than a hundred and fifty years has some origins in slavery. I mean, there -- when they came here from Africa, they came as slaves. So there is some point where your family achieved freedom. And how did that happen? Do you know?
WILLIAMS: You know, I really can't answer that. And, you know, we've researched it. We have done the family lineage on that and we have been able to trace it very well on my mother's side, but on my father's side, it's just --
BOND: Just lost?
WILLIAMS: -- a whole different story. And we've tried.
BOND: You need to find out. This is a fascinating story. This is a fascinating story, I'm telling you that you need to find out.
WILLIAMS: It's critical. I need to find out.
BOND: Let me get back to this. So now it's fifty-two years after Brown and in the same article I quoted from before, a column, you say, "Fifty years later we have not yet gotten around to securing that these students actually receive an equal education." And I think that's commonly understood, that's the truth. Now, why do you think that it is so, that fifty years after this historic decision that still we see unequal education for people of different races in this country?
WILLIAMS: Well, again, it goes back to it was a noble idea. But it was only an idea. They never put the resources, they never put the instructors, and they never did what was absolutely necessary to make this work. And then also, the Great Society programs. I mean, there's often this debate about these social programs that were put in place to sort of empower black people. To sort of make up for their forty acres and a mule that was promised to them, but I believe this. See, I don't trust the government even though I love this country. Would die for this country in its wars, would defend her to the end. I do not trust the government. I don't think that you can pass laws and expect within a few days that people are going to do the moral thing, to make people equal.
I think that even in affirmative action. Affirmative action was something -- it was reparations, is what affirmative action was. But I don't think the lawmakers ever had any intention of it benefiting black people the most because if that were the case, they never would have included white women. I mean, white women -- and we know about women's suffrage and we know about their plight in this country, but never to the extent to what blacks endured in this country. I mean, never to the extent -- I mean, you have to understand, the founders, because they knew that slavery was so wrong, so ugly, and so bad, they had to put in a worse counter form for slavery in order to justify it to those that they broke away from in founding our nation, and so they put in one of the most repressive and horrific regimes ever seen during that time, knowing that it was wrong, and so they had to find a way to justify it.
So, we go back to this Brown decision and they put this affirmative action in place and they included white women, I mean, and then the other thing that happened even in the Great Society programs, when they put these Great Society programs in place, I mean I don't know if you remember this, but my parents would tell a story about how during the late '60s and early '70s, social workers would go through a person's home, look under the bed, look in the bathroom to see whether there was any trace of a man in the household. What they were doing then was forcing that household to choose between the government check and having a man in the house.
People ask the question all the time, "What happened to the black family?" Before the Civil Rights legislation was ever passed Mr. Bond, around the 1950s, 1956 and 1957, 78 percent of the black households had a mother and a father. I would venture to say that these government programs that were put in place displaced the father. And more than anything else that has impacted the black family today is absentee fatherhood. I cannot imagine my life without my father. As much as I love my mother, I love her, I honor her, I've never talked back to my mother in life.
I could never imagine what I would have become without my father in my life because my father taught me discipline. He taught me how to work. He taught me self-respect. He taught me real self-esteem. He taught me discipline. He would spank my butt when I needed it and do it with a smile where I even smiled sometimes after the whipping. But my father was a man. He taught us how to be a man and, see, the problem today is that men don't know what it means to be a man. They don't know how to work. I mean, it's not that they don't want to work. They just don't know how. No one ever taught them. No one was ever an example for them to work and to fend for yourself and to survive for yourself and to provide for your family. And what happens today because there are so many absentee fathers, these mothers are embarrassed and apologetic for it, they make these men soft. They give them everything. They don't earn it, and then when they get out into the larger society they're just disastrous.
BOND: Now, I can understand from what you said earlier about your father's attitude towards the government, and -- but I'm wondering was an attitude that his father had or that his father before him had? Or is this something you think that originated with his generation and you, in turn, learned from him?
WILLIAMS: No. My parents, how could they trust the government? The government allowed slavery! I mean you are talking about a government that allowed one of the most immoral acts --
BOND: Sure, but you could also argue that the government ended slavery.
WILLIAMS: No, the conscience of the people. Good people of all walks of life ended slavery. What happened was is that a sleeping giant was awakened when they saw these images of the dogs being sicced on people and the lynching and the stories. And the stories of [Gus] Goodman and others. It was the conscience of the people that changed the government. If they had not awakened the sleeping giant, things would be just the same as they are today. It takes the character and the moral fiber of a people to change their government. No, I will not give the government credit for that.
BOND: But the government was the agency that ended segregation and at an earlier period, ended slavery.
WILLIAMS: Well, wait a minute. No. You are talking about the Freedmen's Bureau?
BOND: No. The conscience of the people raised up an army run by the government, Abraham Lincoln's army, and that ended slavery. I'm not saying their conscience didn't do it.
WILLIAMS: Well, Mr. Bond, I am also reminded what happened after Reconstruction, when blacks were elected to the Senate and to the Congress and to the legislature and they were thriving. And guess what, the conscience of the people who were still bloody racist, envious, and jealous rose up and took that away and put in a more repressive form of taking that away from them, the Jim Crow laws. This is the same government. Oh yeah, the government may have felt they needed to do the right thing, but when they did the right thing, others used it as an excuse to say, "Well, they're taking away from us, we should have these seats." And they found a way to take it back from them. This is the first time in our history that we can honestly say that the people have forced the government to do something for the long haul of this country. I don't think we can ever go back where the government can take away the kind of freedoms and opportunities and the portrait of life that we're bringing into this country.
You know, I just -- you cannot trust -- a government like that must earn your trust and, still, I see the government with its form of slavery in a different way. What it does through its social programs. The government tells you, "Don't take care of yourself. We'll take care for you. You don't need to think. You don't need to provide for yourself. We'll give you welfare. We'll give you affirmative action." Well, let me tell you something. A government that's big enough to give you everything is big enough to take it away from you. That's why I believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and the spirit of freedom and your own ideas. God bless the child that's got their own.
BOND: I want to go back to Brown v. Board of Education again. Now, you go to an integrated elementary school, which surely is one of the fruits of Brown. Then you go to South Carolina State College, a historically black college. What kind of values did you learn at these separate institutions? The integrated school, the all-black South Carolina State College -- what did learn there? I don't mean the reading, writing, arithametic. What did you learn at these places that has shaped your life?
WILLIAMS: Well, that's a very good question. I've never been asked that before. You know, it actually put in my father's teachings in place that people are the same all over. You know, I have to tell you this, it's no secret. I mean, I say it all the time, people think it's crazy. I've never experienced racism. Ever. Never been called the N word. Never been denied an opportunity because of what people say about the hue of your skin.
When I was in high school, I interacted with people. I networked, we studied together, so much so that they elected me as class president. They elected me as student body president by a landslide. I was able to build real relationships. They would come to my home to study. I would go to their homes. So, my father's vision for us early on, before I ever had this experience, came to life. It came to life.
Now, of course, there are bad people, but I had a wonderful experience because our high school is probably 50-50. 50 percent white, 50 percent black, but all the things that we talked about, how people said they were spat on and the kinds of things that were happening, you were not invited to do this. My father says the greatest weapon to breaking down any barrier is the human heart, how you feel about yourself. And my father taught us to have a lot of pride and a lot of self-confidence.
Now, you flip that to my college experience. It also goes to tell you what my father said about just because someone looks like you doesn't mean they share your value system or they want what's best for you. I remember -- I think this is a pretty good story. I remember when I was in college, my parents and I reached a pact that as long as I maintained a 3.3 grade point average, I would never have to work a job on college campus and that they would pay my education out of their pockets. And, fortunately, my parents paid cash money for my education for all four years, but I had to maintain a 3.0.
So, I remember my rising junior year in college, I had become pretty bored with academics. I just got tired of studying. It was no longer no fun. So I said to my father, I always had to negotiate with him, I said, "You know, we need to do something else here. I want to run for office. I want to run for student body president. I want to make history. I want to be the first rising junior to ever win student body presidency at the school." He said, "Boy, you are going to have a tough time." He said, "You're a Republican." He said, "I want to tell you something. You are about to have an experience you never had." I said, "Oh, no, I think I'll do well." And so I'll never forget when I announced that I was going to run, one of the deans, I am not going to call his name, God bless his soul, he is no longer with us, called me into his office and said, "I hear you are thinking about running for student body president." I said, "Yep. I am thinking about running. I talked to my parents about it. They think it is a good idea." He said, "Well, you know, I am your friend and I have been your advisor since you've been here and I think you are quite capable, but we don't think you should run." And I said, "Why don't you think I should run?" He said, "Well, we think you are a little too dark."
BOND: Oh really?
WILLIAMS: Yes! This is what he says, this is what this dude said to me. But, see, the good thing about it is my father didn't want me to run in the first place and I said, "This guy -- " I could not believe it. But you know at South Carolina State, you had to submit a photo at a certain period to get into the university, absolutely. The guy told me I was too dark. Oh, I said, oh God, Daddy will get a kick out of this." So, I called my father. I said, "You will not believe this. This dude said to me that I was too dark to run for student body president." He said, "You've got to run! Why did I tell you? That is ignorance."
So my father financed the campaign and came down and helped me campaign and I won by 64 votes. So it was just sort of the reverse of it, but still, the majority of the kids voted me in. They voted me in for a second term by a landslide and I still saw the good there. But see, it can come from anywhere. Now, what if someone white had said that to me? It would have been racism, right?
WILLIAMS: But my father's attitude was it's all the same. It's denying you an opportunity.
BOND: Well, it's really some kind of racism in both instances.
BOND: So, if a dean says it to you and some white guy says it to you, it's the same thing.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, so I guess it's racism. I guess we live in a society today that blacks cannot be racist because they have no power. I mean, you can have power when you influence people. If I go to you for advice and I'm asking you to give me the best advice because you have my best interest at heart, why would you give me advice that I am going to suffer from in the long run? Yeah, so racism can take many forms. So, yes, I guess that was racism.
BOND: And the dean had power?
WILLIAMS: Oh, he had power, but he didn't have power over me because I wasn't weak-minded. I had a father. What if I had not had a father? If I had just had a mother in the household and I had no strong male figure in my life, there's no telling what could have turned out, but that motivated me. I was excited and we won. And he apologized.
BOND: Oh, really?
WILLIAMS: Oh --
BOND: Well, at least he was big enough to apologize.
WILLIAMS: Yes. He did apologize.
BOND: This next question I think I know the answer to already, and that's who are the people who have been most significant in helping you develop your talents? Now, you've already talked about your parents and the influence they had on you. What about other people? Not parents. Other people -- teachers, ministers, community figures, those kind of people. But long before you meet Strom Thurmond.
BOND: Who are the people who helped you become who you are today?
WILLIAMS: Mr. Stevenson who was my history teacher who felt I had potential and he really worked with me. Mrs. Crawford, who was my science teacher. I always thrived in the math and the sciences in school. I always thrived, but they developed me. Mr. Watson. You know, I have never had a sports bone in my body. I have never been athletic. I could never make it like a lot of athletes today, but, anyhow, he made me manager of the basketball team and I kept the score and it gave me an interesting outlook about sports and about how life sort of mimics the basketball court and the arena sports. I learned so much from that, and then Bill Jones. Bill Jones was over 4H in my county. He got me into livestock judging where I would judge swine and I would judge cattle. And he got me to become a public speaker where I got into debates and the debate forums around the state to the point where I won the debate contest two years in a row as a sophomore and a junior in high school. And then my brother Alvin followed and won the same. And so these people had a very significant impact on my life. And the Hendersons.
I mean, I remember when I was -- we were taking typing and shorthand. I could never understand why a man would want to take typing or shorthand. And he felt I would thrive in it, and I took typing and I won all the awards in typing because I typed like a hundred and six words a minute and so they developed me and my father always encouraged them to come by. They'd fix a good meal for them, my mother -- they would fix a meal, and we would sit down and go around the table because my parents dropped out of school when they were in the sixth grade. So my parents would sit around the table and want to learn, too. They had a hunger for learning. And they also felt that I was being an example for my brothers and sisters to come that learning can be fun. It can be exciting, and so they made learning fun in our household. When we were about to have a tutoring session, everybody would gather around the table and just sit and learn and everybody would take notes. It was like a game in the house. Like some people had Nintendo, but learning math problems or logarithms, English and all that kind of stuff was very exciting in our household.
BOND: What about outside the school setting? Were there figures in the community that pushed you along some way or helped you in some way?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's kind of interesting because --
BOND: Let me interrupt you -- and ministers, particularly, because what I found interesting about your family is that you went to different churches.
WILLIAMS: Yes, that's true.
BOND: Now, how did that come about?
WILLIAMS: Well, my mother is Pentecostal and my father is African Methodist Episcopalian. And my mother tells the story. You see, my father was married twice. His first wife, in giving birth to the fourth child, died in childbirth. And he was in need of a wife because he had this young baby and he had these three young kids. And so, my mother had a very good reputation in the community. She was twenty-nine years old, had never been married and to hear her tell it, she never thought she would ever marry, and she was a virgin. I mean, think about that. She was a virgin. Everybody knew about her reputation and so my father went to my grandfather, whose name I bear, Armstrong Howell, and said, "You know Mr. Armstrong, my wife, Theola, just died. I've got this young baby and I'm looking for a wife and I would love to marry your daughter Thelma." He never went to my mother because that's not how it worked at the time. He went to my grandfather, and my grandfather told me the story during his lifetime.
He said, "Well, James, you've got a pretty good reputation. You work hard. You got that nice farm and you need help. I think Thelma would make you a good wife." He said, "Let me talk to her." So he talked to my mother and my mother said yes, so my mother came into the marriage with already four kids to take care of, but one of the things that she agreed on. They met -- this happened -- his wife died on January 24, 1957, and he married my mother March 1st. They never really knew each other. So he married my mother on March 1st, but the one thing that my mother asked for though, the only thing that she asked for is that she did not leave her papa's faith. She is not going to join with those boring African Methodist Episcopalian people and she is going to remain with New Life Holiness Church and I am the only one of the ten kids that joined with my mother. It's where I get my excitement, my zest for life.
BOND: So all of the other kids went to the AME church?
WILLIAMS: All of them are members of the AME church, even today they are, but I went with my mother.
BOND: So you tell the story about the difference between yourself and your siblings and your choice of church. Why did you go this way and they didn't?
WILLIAMS: Well, my father, to be candid with you, he actually thought that the people that would shout and speak in tongue, that they were kind of ignorant. He just looked down on it. And my father had such a huge influence on all of us. We are much more like our father than our mother, but, you know, I said, "Well, you know -- " And so I just said, I said, "Look -- " So I was talking to my father and he said, "Boy, you don't want to join them, uh-uh, you don't want to join." I said, "Well, I don't know. I mean, everybody else -- " I said, "I think I'm going to join Momma's church, plus I like it better, too." Because at his church, I'd sleep all the time. You know, even though church was a big part of our upbringing -- we went to church every Sunday -- it was not something that was indoctrinated. It was not everything. It was as if we had to stay in church because, see, at The Holiness Church, the thing that my father did not like, you'd get to church at eight o'clock in the morning and you would not get home until three. At least with my father's faith, you would get to church at eleven and you were out by one. And that was a big deal.
So my mother was in church all day, which drove him crazy but that was her thing. So I said I am going to join with Momma and she was so happy that I joined her. And I remain a member of her church today. That's why I joined, but one of the few times in my life I just decided with my father that I wasn't going to follow his advice.
BOND: Did this create any conflicts between yourself and your brothers and sisters?
WILLIAMS: Oh no, no, no. And my father liked the fact that I was willing to step out on it. He said, "Boy, after all, it is your momma. I mean, so how can I get upset with you? It is your momma." So, it was okay and we had that conversation.
BOND: It was never his thought to go to The Holiness Church. He would not --
WILLIAMS: No, would never. But he never tried to tell us -- even though he would tell us, in the end it was our choice and most of my brothers and sisters felt the same way. They just could not get into the speaking in tongues, people falling out all over the church and being covered in towels. It was just too much for them. But I said, "Okay, I'm going to join my momma." And so he gave me a pass on that.
BOND: Now, let's move forward to the time you meet Strom Thurmond and you're relatively young.
BOND: And your father takes you to a place where he's speaking and what happens there?
WILLIAMS: Well, my father had read in the paper that Strom Thurmond was speaking at the Dry Dock Seafood Hut. See, my father wanted us to be governor and senators. His attitude was that he was going to make a lot of money and we did not struggle. We grew up in an affluent family. I thank God for that. Did not have to struggle. And he said, "Let me take care of making the money and you all need to be elected officials because, you know what, he said the only way you change the government is you have people like you who's unwilling to punish people for the way they punished us in the past, judging us by the hue of our skin." He said, "You've got to be fair. Justice has to be fair." Everybody feels they got to get the fair treatment and my father felt that he was raising fair, compassionate children.
And, so my father said, "Well, look, Strom Thurmond is going to be at the Dry Dock Seafood Hut. I think he's the guy that can take you to Washington." He always wanted me to go to Washington, my father, and I always listened.
BOND: Let me stop you right there. Now, I know you say you get your entrepreneurial spirit from your father, but what you are describing to me now seems to me that he is saying the entrepreneurial spirit is great. You know, making money -- that's great. But that's something I'm going to do so that your generation doesn't have to do it and you instead can go into public service. Is that right?
WILLIAMS: Oh, he never thought I would be in business. He never thought I would be an entrepreneur. That was something that was never encouraged in our household. It was to get the best education, background for office, and make the government and the state better.
BOND: And what about your siblings? Any of them people you would call entrepreneurs?
WILLIAMS: The majority of them are. Yes.
BOND: So, what about public service?
WILLIAMS: I have a brother who is a state senator. I also have a brother who runs a political action committee. But we were sort of, I mean, politics, it's interesting. It was something -- And we grew up and my father would have these fundraisers for these politicians who were running for office. We'd have to glad hand and shake. We had to be at the reception and it was good for business for him. When there was a problem with the farm, he could always call Farm Bureau. Always call the governor's office and they always responded. My father was a Republican, and so I actually thought I was going to go and become a politician.
BOND: For most of your life, your father is a Republican in a Democratic state.
BOND: And he is Republican at a time when most Democrats are saying, "You know, these people, just a little tiny bit of them, they're not doing anything. They are no threat to us. They'll never take over anything." How did he operate in that situation? I mean, why does he have this access to the government? Why would the governor pay any attention to a black Republican?
WILLIAMS: Well, he gave money to politicians. That's where I get it from.
BOND: I see.
WILLIAMS: He would support them. See, he felt money could do just about anything. He said money is good, but he said if the farm life continues, he felt we would be well taken care of. But he actually thought that politicians were for rent. And that was nothing about principle. He didn't want us to become that, but certainly, I mean, you had this guy. He was an anomaly. Here he is a Republican. He has one of the finest farms in the state. Seriously. He built one of the finest farms in the state. It's a great place for entertaining, which we continue the tradition to the day. We have governors. We have people like Steve Forbes. We have everybody who is anybody come there for a fundraiser because of the way it's laid out, the way it is built.
And so, my father, when he saw this about Strom Thurmond, he wanted for some time for me to meet the Senator. So, and listen, we're in the middle of our tobacco crop. He said, "Boy, get the black gum off your hands and take a shower because we are about to go see Strom." So we get to the Dry Dock Seafood Hut and we got there just when Senator Thurmond was leaving and we walked in. Some of the people recognized my father because he had a strong reputation in the county and just before he was about to be introduced to Strom Thurmond, I extended my hand and I said, "Hello Senator. I am Armstrong Williams and I hear you are a racist."
BOND: And what did Thurmond say?
WILLIAMS: Oh, no, it's what my father said, forget about what Thurmond said! I thought my father was going to slap me actually, but we were in public.
WILLIAMS: Can you imagine my chocolate-shaded -- my father red, beaming through his face. He was furious because he had worked so hard to make this happen. And so Thurmond chuckled and he told my father not to worry about it. "At least he's honest. I am sure you raised him that way." So then my father sort of cooled out and my father said, "Well, Son, make sure you exchange numbers because Senator, I want him to work for you one day." He said, "A lot of people say these things about you, but I told my boy, you get to know people before you judge them. And I want my boy to get to know you because I have plans for him and I know you can help him." So my father was really doing all the talking. I will still sitting back there afraid to say anything else because I didn't want to get on his bad side anymore.
So, now we exchange cards and the Senator said to me, "You sound like a bright young man. What grade are you in?" He said, "When you graduate from high school, if you ever want to come to Washington and intern for me, come work for me. Why don't you decide whether I'm a racist or not." So he issued me a challenge. So, look, it was like it went straight over my head. I had no interest in following up with Senator Thurmond. So my father stayed on me and sure enough, I would write him and he would always write back. And he would call every now and then.
And so what happened was, I got into college and at the end of my freshman year, I started thinking about my father's tobacco fields and sand-lugging and cropping tobacco and I said, you know what, I have got to find something else to do other than working on that tobacco farm during the summer so I said to my father, I said, "I'm kind of trying to get some other experiences during the summer to expand my portfolio." He said, "Boy, you need to follow up with Strom Thurmond and go work with him." He said, "I have been telling you this because if not, I am going to put your A back in this tobacco field." That's the way my father talked.
So sure enough, I did not want to work in the tobacco field that summer so I called Senator Thurmond. I will never forget it. He called me back the next day and I said, "You know, I have been thinking about you. I have gotten your notes periodically." I said, "I want to take you up on your challenge. I want to come intern for you to see what Washington is like," and I will tell you this -- I will never forget this -- when I came to Washington, I went to the Capitol and it was at night. And I looked over the Capitol and I had this feeling. You know, you have to understand, it was my first time out of the state of South Carolina. All I had known was rural South, outhouses, not our own. Just a whole different world and when I saw that I said, "Oh my God." I began to see my father's vision and I fell in love with another way of life that I felt that I could really thrive at, so I started working for him and I worked for him almost every summer and that began the relationship.
And I have to thank my father because he had vision, but the difference was, unlike some people today, I trusted my parents more than I trusted myself. I knew that my father, and he is crazy sometimes, would absolutely not give me advice unless he had my best interest at heart. And even though he was not educated like some parents, I knew my father loved me and I knew my father had a strong inner spirit about what we were capable of doing and he encouraged that. And so that started me to actually believing that I could run for public office.
BOND: Isn't there an anomaly between your description of your father as someone who does not trust the government and is suspicious of the government and then someone who sends you to, in effect, work for the government and become a part of it and whose aspiration is that you will become part of the government?
WILLIAMS: Remember what I said to you -- it was the interesting thing about Daddy is that he felt that the government would change. And that it would be better. Maybe not during his time, but in a time when his children would come along, that the government would be ready for someone like us to effect change. Realizing that it would always be imperfect. The government is representative of its people. In order for the government to do better, you've got to have good people to run for office with strong values and a different way of looking at life. So, his distrust in the government, true that exists, but he never lost faith that the government could change much later down the road and be better as more and more people were allowed to participate in that system of government.
BOND: Now, when I'm thinking back about Strom Thurmond, one of the things I that I remember about him is he had a reputation, as you've discussed, for being very close to his constituents. Constituent service like nobody's business. That of all the senators, if you want somebody to return your call or write you a letter back, Strom Thurmond was the guy. What did you do when you interned for him these summers and what did you pick up from him or did you pick up things from him that you have carried through life?
WILLIAMS: You know, for some reason, the Senator liked me. I have to tell you.
BOND: You're a likeable guy, Armstrong.
WILLIAMS: No, no, no. It's much more than that. He would -- in the evenings, he would ask me to stay late and he would share with me letters from the constituency. He would share with me how legislation worked in the Congress. He would take me over privately to Capitol Hill, to the Congress, to the Senate, and show to me how the different bodies, the Majority Leader and how all the interactions of the Congress worked. He would show me how a bill was put together.
BOND: Did he treat his other interns this way?
WILLIAMS: No, [he] did not. And they really couldn't understand it. It was different. I cannot explain it. My mother said it was her prayers, but I was in class. I was with the historian all the time. And during Thanksgiving when I really started working with him, when I could not come home, even when I had a job in Washington, during Thanksgiving, it was always, if I were in town, he would bring me over to his office just before Thanksgiving. He'll let me see all the things that are going on, the things that he is involved in, things that may be in the press versus what the reality of it is.
And I will never forget. I got to tell you something. I really respected Strom Thurmond. I must tell you, more than anybody else. More than Justice [Clarence] Thomas, Strom Thurmond has had more of an impact on my life than anybody. I will tell you why -- because he was very kind to me. And he was very sincere and he is very honorable. He said, "You know, I was racist. Let's be clear." He said, "I was a segregationist." He said, "But I had to be." He said, "But let me tell you something. I fought against the poll tax. I did what I could." He said, "You must consider the times. But it's men like you, like your father said, who must change those times." He said, "Your father is a good man. I have a lot of respect for him. And I have a lot of respect for how he is raising you because you're inquisitive." He said, "I like the fact that you asked me whether I was a racist," he said, "because most kids don't have the confidence to ask a senator something like that. You didn't ask me that to insult me. You were inquisitive as to what you were getting into." And, I mean, listen, I took a lot of hits for my association with Strom Thurmond.
BOND: Oh, I'm sure.
WILLIAMS: You have no idea. Especially at South Carolina State, but I liked this guy. He taught me about how important it is to have a senator in Washington. He said, "Everything in Washington has to do with whether you are close to the President, the Speaker of the House, or some senator, or some Secretary of a Cabinet." He said, "I am going to be the person you are close to." And I will never forget -- and I used to tell people when I first came to Washington that I was close to Strom Thurmond because everybody saw him as a racist and they laughed at me and thought I was a joke. It was very hurting and I remember I would call my father, he would say, "Well, ask the Senator to do something to change that." On a simple thing. I never thought about it, so I went to see the Senator and I said, "You know, no one believes that I am your boy." I mean, I didn't say it like that. I said, "Well, nobody believes that, you got to help me out."
He said, "Well what should we do?" I said, "Well, maybe I'll have a party and invite all these naysayers and you come," and so he said, "Well, you only have a one-room apartment that's infested with roaches." I said, "Yeah, but that's all I got. I'd like for you to come." He said, "Set it up and I'll come. And so he said, "but you got to brief me on what to say." At that time, Barry White had this song out "It's time for change, everything must change." So the Senator and I would go into his office going over all of the words to make sure he knew the words to the song.
BOND: I can't imagine Strom Thurmond and Barry White.
WILLIAMS: But, anyhow, so I put together this little invitation where I said, "I want you to come to my place and meet my very special guest, my mentor and hero, Senator Strom Thurmond." And so Senator Thurmond said, "Now, you know, they are not going to believe you so I am going to give the impression that I am not going to show up and you will see the real nature of people, but you just call me and I am going to be downstairs," because he was right around the corner. So, sure enough, Dr. Bond, my little apartment was packed. There must have been a hundred and seventy-five people all the way around to the elevator. And you knew when Strom got off the elevator because people started howling and screaming. I mean, it was like a rock concert. And he comes in -- oh, he was old then. He was in his seventies then, so he comes in and he said, "This boy is like a son to me," he said, "and when I came over here, I heard Barry White on the radio." He said, "Barry White was singing, 'It's time for a change.'" People were weeping.
BOND: Just fell out, fell out. Oh, yeah.
WILLIAMS: Fell out! And that was it. That's what changed my status in Washington was that I had a Senator and he stayed with me and he supported me on all the things that he felt that would advance me in the city. So, look, I definitely owe Strom a debt of gratitude, but my father even a deeper gratitude who had the vision and the foresight to believe that this could be possible.
BOND: Let's go on. How did you meet Clarence Thomas, now Justice Thomas? How did you meet him?
WILLIAMS: Now, that's an interesting story. Senator Thurmond got me a job at the Department of Agriculture in Animal, Plant, and Health Inspection Services where I was in my area, agriculture, which I understand very well. But they didn't know what to do with me. The Secretary of Agriculture at the time was John Block. And John Block said, "Why don't you put together this Black History Month program for the department?" I said, "Oh, I don't want to be involved in no race issues or no minority issues. My father told me to stay away from that because you are going to put me in a box."
And the secretary -- and I mentioned it to Senator Thurmond. He said, "Well, you know, it may be an opportunity for you." He said, "You can always shy away from race issues. Don't be afraid of that because it is a part of America's fabric." He said, "but, you know, I mean, embrace it and see if you can come up with some ideas because they may learn things about you." So I was reading the newspapers and I saw where Richard Pryor had been freebasing cocaine.
I had no contacts to Richard Pryor. Nobody. And I said, "Now, wouldn't it be interesting if I could convince Richard Pryor to come to Washington to give a straight speech for Black History month?" I said, "Ronald Reagan is getting beat up for his civil rights record and Richard Pryor is getting just whipped for his drug problem." I made about sixty-some calls and finally this guy by the name of Terry Giles called me back. He was the lawyer for Richard Pryor and I told him I was this big wig in the administration. I worked for Senator Thurmond. If I needed to get Senator Thurmond on the phone, I could. And we're interested in bringing Richard Pryor to Washington. We'd take care of all of his travel. None of this had been confirmed, by the way. We'd take care of all his travel and we'd like to have him come and sure enough two weeks later he called me back and said Richard Pryor would do it.
Oh, my God. I went running to Senator Thurmond and I said, "You've got to support me on this." He said, "Well, this is going to be a problem because people are going to see this further shows that Ronald Reagan has no concern for black people because he's bringing Richard Pryor in who he is a comedian, who's not serious, who finished freebasing cocaine." He said, "You're going to have a problem with this." I said, "But you've got to trust me, I can make this work. I can make this work. You asked me to be creative." He said, "But, look, I -- "
BOND: But, he never dreamed of that.
WILLIAMS: Oh no, he had never dreamed of it. So, sure enough -- I said, "But there's one problem that they insisted that Richard Pryor was willing to come if President Reagan would host a reception for him at the White House."
BOND: Oh, wow.
WILLIAMS: Yes. So, Senator Thurmond called Reagan himself and said, "I know you are going to get a lot of flack on this, but trust this young man. This is going to work out." And sure enough, when I finally presented it to the Department that Richard Pryor was coming, they flipped out, but the die had already been cast. The White House knew. Strom Thurmond gave his assurances. But I will never forget that Senator Thurmond called me into his office and we went out to lunch at the Sport Avenue Grill. That's where we had lunch. He said, "I want to tell you something." He said, "You're becoming like a son to me." I will never forget this conversation. He said, "But I have got to tell you this. If Richard Pryor embarrasses the President, you are out of here and you won't be welcome back to this city for a long time." I said, "Senator, I'm willing to take a chance." But I was naïve. I didn't know the fallout that could come as a result of this. I just wanted to make it happen.
BOND: Weren't you afraid -- Richard Pryor was full of profanity? His routine was full of the worst kind of words.
WILLIAMS: I was twenty-one. I was twenty-one.
BOND: But you had heard of him --
WILLIAMS: Yes, yes, yes. But it didn't matter. I wanted him there and when you want someone to do something, you forget about everything else. You are blinded. You have all these blinders on. I'll never forget when Richard Pryor got off the airplane, he was stunned that I was so young. And we got in the car. I said, "Look, man. Let me just tell you this. I got a lot on the line. You cannot be up there cursing and you got to give a straight speech because -- and I got to help you write it because there are a lot of naysayers." And so, Richard Pryor said, "We considered those things." He said, "I appreciate your inviting me, but I am glad to see you are a brother." He said, "I didn't think you was a brother. A brother got this kind of power? You close to Strom Thurmond?"
And so the first night Strom Thurmond hosted a dinner for us. We went back to Richard Pryor's room, and I have to tell this story. I'll never forget. Jesse Jackson called Richard Pryor and said, "Don't do it. Do not give your credibility to this administration." Mrs. King called, "Don't do it." Oh, I was in the room. I was learning another lesson. She said, "Don't do it." Richard Pryor said, "All my life I've never given a straight speech for Dr. King. You all have never asked me to do anything and here it is, this young brother invites me to Washington to give a speech and you're telling me not to show up." He said, "Well, you know what? I am going to show up and you all just have to live with it!" And so the next day at the Department of Agriculture, Richard Pryor spoke.
BOND: What did he say?
WILLIAMS: Oh, man. You should see the headlines. You can go back and trace this. The Washington Post had the "The Jester Weeps" gave the best speech ever in his life. It was his only straight speech in his life. Talked about King. Talked about the only march that he had been a part of and it was a Poor People's March. And I'll never forget this, as soon as the program was over, they were calling me Strom Thurmond because we had people in the audience saying the President's going to be honored to see Richard Pryor tomorrow.
And on the very next day, President Reagan had a reception to honor Richard Pryor. Over two hundred and fifty people including all the civil rights leaders were there and I will never forget when Ronald Reagan and both of them from from California grabbed each other and they both cried in each other's arms. That was the picture that captured it.
On that Monday morning, this woman called me. Her name was Diane. Said, "I am calling for Chairman Thomas of the EEOC. He wants to see you, but he wants to speak with you first." He said, "Man, I read about your bringing Richard Pryor." He said, "That's a heck of a thing to do." He said, "Man, you've got this place in shock." He said, "Man, these people don't know what to do with you at the Department of Agriculture. You should come work for me and help me develop you." And I went by on that Monday for an interview and I started working for him on that Wednesday. That's how I met Thomas.
BOND: I just can't believe this story. I never heard that about Richard Pryor.
WILLIAMS: Oh, that's what happened. Yes.
BOND: I wasn't living in Washington when this happened.
WILLIAMS: That's why Richard Pryor came to Washington. He spoke at the Department of Agriculture for Black History Month and they asked him in interviews, "Why did you come?" And he said, "Because an Agriculture employee, Armstrong Williams, asked me to and he promised me a reception with the President and I got that." And Richard and I remained friends until his death.
WILLIAMS: Yes. In fact, it was he who introduced me to Hollywood. Absolutely. He would bring me out to California. That is how I met people like Barry White, Jamal Woods, because I started bringing them in for different functions, but he opened me up to a whole different world. That's how I got access to Hollywood, was through Richard Pryor. And you didn't know that.
BOND: No, I never knew that. I never knew that. You know, I made a movie with him and I never heard this, but this is not about me.
BOND: All right. So you get with Thomas and you work with him for a number of years. What was that like?
BOND: Why was it hard?
WILLIAMS: He was a tough taskmaster. He was something to work for. Reminded me of my father in many ways. You cannot show up to work a minute late. It was like it was a hard place to survive. But my work ethic and my father and my background had prepared me for him and he was different. He was different. Very bright, but he was not necessarily the warmest person that you could really warm to. You had to earn your trust with him. And I started out as his Press Secretary and ended up writing speeches for him, but once I earned his trust, I traveled with him 80 percent of the time and we bonded and so that was a phenomenal part of my life because I learned a lot about the inner workings of government.
In fact, I had Senator Thurmond to swear him in and he was able to get a lot done. Thurmond sort of became like the champion for EEOC on a lot of the things that they were trying to do and it was four years, four enjoyable years that I stayed there with him until my father became ill and I brought my father to D.C. in '85 because I didn't want that burden on my mother to take care of him. He had myeloma bone cancer because my father had just attended Ronald Reagan's inauguration in that January because he was so thrilled that Reagan won, and so we celebrated. I rented a limousine and all that and had my father -- I was showing out. I wanted my father to feel I was big time. Strom Thurmond hosted a dinner party for us, but later that year he became ill and I was so devastated by his death. I was just so devastated that I needed a break from D.C., so I told the Justice. But the Justice was very kind to me during that period because my father was in the hospital for about four months and I probably saw EEOC three days out of those four months. I was always by his bedside taking care of him and when he died, I moved to High Point, North Carolina, to start a different life.
BOND: To work for Bob Brown?
WILLIAMS: Bob Brown, that's right.
BOND: Now, describe Bob Brown because many people watching this won't know.
WILLIAMS: Bob Brown was the person that Ronald Reagan wanted as Ambassador to South Africa before Edward Perkins became the Ambassador. But Mr. Brown decided against it. Mr. Brown worked in the Nixon administration. He and Art Fletcher built the Minority Set Aside Programs. They are the ones that put the new version of affirmative action in place and minority business enterprise. Bob Brown is one of the most revered Republicans in this country. He's built a successful international public relations firm and I don't know if you remember, when Nelson Mandela was in Pollsmoor, Mr. Brown was the first American to him in Pollsmoor and Mr. Mandela asked him could he find a way to finance his children's education here in the United States and Mr. Brown was able to get them scholarships through Dr. [John] Siber, at the time who was President of Boston University and they came here under his stewardship and he took care of them.
And so he was very involved with the Mandela family and one of my assignments when I was with Mr. Brown, I became Vice President of Government and International Affairs. I spent a lot of time in South Africa with Winnie Mandela, with the movement, spent a lot of times going back and forth with his adult daughter and the grandkids back and forth to South Africa. This is where I first traveled internationally was through Mr. Brown, so it opened up my world up to international travel. I built a very good relationship with Mrs. Mandela and when Mr. Mandela was freed from Pollsmoor, I think it was 1990 or 1991, he personally asked me would I work in their office to respond to all the letters that were coming in. And I remember the letters from Gorbachev, Edward Kennedy. I was typing and writing all those letters and they were signing them and it may surprise you, you know, that I had that experience, but it was wonderful and I'll never forget the first interview that Mr. Mandela gave after coming out was with he and Winnie and I had to interview and I remember people there like Chris Wallace and others would could not get in because they were the wrong color, to be honest with you, and I gave them my blessings and Mr. Mandela allowed them the interview so it was a fascinating time. I was there for about a month after he was released.
BOND: Now, back to Bob Brown. Is it fair to say that the experience with Bob Brown introduces you to public relations as a profession?
WILLIAMS: Yes, it does.
BOND: And that led to your association with Stedman?
WILLIAMS: Well, what happened -- this is good -- Oprah was looking for something for Stedman. Her man needed credibility. Not that he's just her beau. And so Dr. Maya Angelou and Oprah are best friends. Well, Dr. Angelou is like her mother, and so in High Point -- well, Oprah came to High Point at Winston-Salem because Dr. Angelou felt she had the perfect situation for Stedman, because Oprah wanted him in a situation where he would not be exploited, which would further exploit her. Put him in an environment where he could learn and grow and develop as a professional.
So they had this dinner, and it worked out where Stedman would come and work for B&C Associates, so Stedman and I -- I was on board a few months before Stedman, so Stedman came on board as Vice President of Business Development and that's how we met and we both learned the field of professional public relations, the field of marketing, crisis management, crisis public relations. In fact, every time that I was in South Africa, Stedman was with us. In fact, it was because of this relationship that Oprah set up the feeding program in South Africa and building this academy in South Africa. All this came from this relationship with Mr. Brown, and so Stedman and I decided -- well, Oprah used to -- and then I ended up running Oprah's Foundation. There is the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, charitable givings. I was its first executive director and I ran her foundation for little over a year and giving away money, working with different philanthropic organizations, and so Stedman and I decided in late 1989 and 1990 that we should use the skills and gifts that we learned from Mr. Brown to start our own public relations firm so we went into business together and founded the Grahams Williams group.
BOND: And very quickly because I want to get into some other kinds of questions, the Thomas Supreme Court nomination is a point in which you become publicly known --
BOND: -- because of your support of him and your appearances on TV and in the media.
WILLIAMS: Well, the media and I worked together. We were all there together at the EEOC. And so when Thomas was nominated by Bush to the Supreme Court, we handled much of his public relations and advising him and so when Thomas eventually was elected to Supreme Court, because I think he was elected and not appointed, you know, the victor gets all the benefits, but those that supported him get some benefits, too, so I started writing for the USA Today.
Cathy Hughes offered me a radio show on WOL which was for a week to twice and five days a week. And that's how I came to the attention of the public was through those hearings and being there for my mentor, Justice Thomas.
BOND: Now, I don't think of you, Armstrong, as a journalist because I think of a journalist as someone writing for the daily press who is reporting news. I think of you as a commentator. How do you think of yourself?
WILLIAMS: Well, after No Child Left Behind, you would think I was a journalist, but --
BOND: Well, no, but --
WILLIAMS: But, no, I'm not a journalist. You know, I have no professional training as a journalist. I did not go to school for journalism. It wasn't until Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court that I became a commentator, writing commentary, doing radio, I'm just -- I'm a commentator. I really am not a journalist.
BOND: So, when you have to fill out a form and it says profession, what do you write there?
WILLIAMS: Conservative commentator.
BOND: Conservative commentator?
BOND: Not just commentator, but conservative commentator?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I'm a conservative commentator.
WILLIAMS: That doesn't surprise you, of course.
BOND: Now, whether you do or not, at some point you have to say to yourself, and maybe it's not verbalized, you have to say to yourself, "I am a leader." What was that point for you?
WILLIAMS: Well, that's a fascinating question. My father, as a child, always said that people would trust me and believe me so therefore as a child I was a leader, is what my parents would say.
BOND: How did this exhibit itself as a child? I mean, not just the high school offices.
WILLIAMS: At home.
BOND: Okay. Did your siblings -- who trusted you? Who followed you at home?
WILLIAMS: My parents did and my brothers and sisters and then my uncles and my cousins. You know, I was like -- they felt I had wisdom. My father tried to figure out an issue with the farm, stuff that was going on with the farm and things were not working out the way they were supposed to work out and we would be around the dinner table and as a boy of fourteen years old, I said, "Well, Daddy, have you ever tried this, have you ever thought about this," because I was well read. Daddy said, "Boy, how did you know that? Boy, there's boy's out." You know, out? They used to say out when we were growing up, and so my father would say, "Boy, I'm telling you, you going places. That boy, that's a leader right there," and so he would try it. It would work.
Then when I was thirteen my father had me do the taxes for the farm. Yes, I was doing the taxes, putting together the taxes for the farm and I would pay the hands. I would -- my father would pay in cash, I would pay all the hands, you know, go to get all this money from the bank. I would pay and keep a track record of what is paid, what is outstanding, and then make sure that at the end of the year when we give it to the accountant, so I had all these responsibilities, so it's not strange that I'm an entrepreneur because my parents are entrepreneurs. I always had the gifts of the marketplace because I would tell my father, "You know what, I don't think cotton's going to do well next season."
BOND: How would you know?
WILLIAMS: I'd read the trends. I'd read a lot of economic periodicals. I got to tell you, I said, "Daddy -- " They didn't have the Internet back then. So, I was reading these trends because my father didn't read, and I said, "I got to tell you something. I would skip planting cotton next year. I think you should go more with barley. Go more with tobacco, but I think you should go heavy on the swine because I think that you're going to make money," and it would always work that way. So in my household I could always sort of drive the economics, and then I said to my father, just before he became ill. I said, "You know, Daddy -- " I was away from home at this time -- I said, "You know, the farm is suffering. I think there're going to be a lot of losses over this tobacco and cigarettes." I said, "I remember you used to tell us that you all can crop and grow this tobacco but you better not be caught smoking it because it'll kill you." And I said, "I got tell you something. I think these lawsuits, I think it's going to impact tobacco. I don't think tobacco is going to be what it once was and I don't know if it's going to be able to pay for Kent and Bruce and everybody else's education. I think we need to try something else." And my father eventually said, "The farm is not going to sustain you boys like I thought it would." He said, "I think Armstrong might be right," and we were -- I saw the trends. That's why he said it.
BOND: I should've had you predicting trends for me.
WILLIAMS: No, no. You know what, I don't know about trends, but I just understood. I would read and I would share it with my parents, but they allowed us to share because our parents didn't treat us like children. They treated us with respect as adults and my parents would listen. Now, some parents would not listen to a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old, but my parents were different. My father actually believed that I knew what I was talking about.
BOND: So, moving forward, you're in high school. You get elected to these offices, and that's one way in America we measure leadership. You're elected to an office, you're therefore a leader. And you get into college and then you get out into the work world. Now, when in the work world did you decide that you're a leader?
WILLIAMS: Justice Thomas' confirmation hearings.
BOND: So at the Department of Agriculture, you're not thinking of yourself in this way?
WILLIAMS: No, not even with Richard, no. That was fun. I was twenty-one. But let me tell you something. Those confirmation hearings -- it's about strategy. They're about inches. And then the other thing -- I think what troubled me most about the confirmation hearings, and I have to be careful saying this in public -- is that I always had a strong moral compass. I have to always be ethical, honest, and legal in what I do. My parents always taught me that, but during the confirmation hearings it was all about winning. And I think during Thomas' confirmation hearings, I became things and had to do things that troubled me in my spirit. And I think more than anything else what I learned from his confirmation hearings, I never want to be a politician. I think more than any time in my life I made the decision I cannot be an elected. If this is what it takes, because you are told nobody cares about the truth. Nobody wants to hear the truth and I saw that, so what you got to do, you got to destroy Anita Hill by any means necessary, so my attitude was to take her out. That was the attitude that I had. I was a general and I led the forces to do that. And he went on the Court but I had a lot of soul searching to do.
BOND: And how do you feel about that now?
WILLIAMS: Oh, I mean, it's my past and, you know, I did it. I don't feel good about it. I've been forgiven for it because I've become a better person. Now, most people won't admit that, that what we do in Washington to destroy other people to elevate others -- I was a part of that. And I realized being in elective office, you can become things that you don't -- and I never wanted to become that and by that time my father was deceased. I didn't have his guidance so I was on my own and a lot of people went along with my plans, but it was a big part of the process.
BOND: But even though your father's not living, you have his memory and you have the memory of the things he taught you. Are you saying to me that you can't think of any time in the future that you might want to go back to South Carolina and run for this, run for that?
WILLIAMS: No, I can't say that because it was always a vision of my father. Oh, I can never say that. It's in me. I'm the one who convinced my brother to run to satisfy my own conscience because it's part of a guilt, something that I have not satisfied because I believe I can do it. No, no, I know I could do it. I know I have what it takes to do it. There's no doubt about that. That's not arrogance. It's just a fact. I know I can do it. Well, am I willing to do it? There's always that possibility I could go back and run for office.
BOND: Yes. Adam Clayton Powell once told me, "Never say you what you won't do."
WILLIAMS: That's what I'm saying.
BOND: Because you never know.
WILLIAMS: You never know. I agree.
BOND: You said a moment ago that you were troubled by some things that happened during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and I don't want to ask about the things, but why were these things troubling to you?
WILLIAMS: Anita was a friend. She was very good to me at EEOC. We talked. We were both Southerners. We'd both come from large families. And even though I believed Justice Thomas, I could not understand why she was saying what she was saying and I never took the time to even ask her because you know, it's as if I didn't want to know. I had made my decision that I was with Justice Thomas. I didn't want to ask, but it hurt me to see how we just turned her into this monster, this evil person, and I remember at the hearing one day, she and I walked past each other and she looked at me and she looked like she wanted to cry and it was as if she was saying, "Of all people, how could you -- " And, you know, and I did this, painful, so but I have a conscience, but I'm willing to admit that I did some of those things so others can realize, but you've got to really make sure that when you make these decisions that you're willing to live with the consequences of them. I mean, we all have regrets in our lives. I don't regret supporting and defending Justice Thomas. I regret having to do it at her expense.
BOND: You said a moment ago that you'd been forgiven. Have you been forgiven by her?
WILLIAMS: No. I haven't talked to her.
BOND: Do you require forgiveness by her?
WILLIAMS: No. I should. I guess I should, but some day I'll run into her, but, you know, sometimes these wounds are so deep, I know sometimes time can heal them. And, you know what, the best thing about life is that the best things that happen to us are the things that we cannot plan and hopefully before I die and leave this place, that I can make amends with her. That's my hope.
BOND: She's not hard to find.
WILLIAMS: That's true.
BOND: Let me move on to some other questions. I want to mention three things -- vision, philosophy and style. How do these interact for you? Philosophy, vision and style?
WILLIAMS: Well, my philosophy is shaped by my virtues and my value system. My philosophy is basically shaped by my parents, you know, when I didn't even understand it. And as I've gone through life, I've come back to it. It's sort of like what the Bible says -- "Raise a child in a way that you want them to become and what you want them to be and even though they may go astray, they will always come back to it." It's absolutely based in morality and how you treat people and how you're loyal and honorable is my philosophy.
You know, I may rail against same sex marriages and abortion, but never underestimate my value of the human being, my value of understanding those tough decisions that people make and some things people are just born and things happen to people that we cannot always explain. It's easy to rail against the things in life, but, you know, I do care about people. I do care about the struggles that they have and even though I may speak out often against issues that sometime American blacks feel that I'm doing somebody else's bidding, I would be the first to speak out against bigotry and racism because it's not about black and white. I mean, it's about morality.
Racism to me is morality, is ugly, and I realize what it has done to this country and I also realize that in my philosophy, I'm not too foolish to understand that because I had a mother and a father, because I had parents that gave me four years of an education without any debt, I had a family who came to Washington and found me a place to live and paid for the first month's rent, I realize that that had given me a head start in life. It made it appreciate -- I did not have the substantial debt that a lot of kids have today so as much as I talk about the philosophy of pulling yourself up by the bootstrap, I understand that there is something in the legacy of slavery, not so much what people talk about but what we don't talk about enough about, and that is being able to pass along home ownership, wealth, but not only that, a sense of self-worth, a real sense of self-esteem, something of value that you can pass along to your children because if a parent can give their child a $30- or or $40,000 gift, that determines when they're buying a home, it makes the determination of whether you're going to buy a house in a neighborhood that has a good school system or you're going to have to go wherever you can afford, so I understand how money operates and influences the decisions of people.
And I also understand how that some people will say that the left is immoral, but you know what, I believe that the left is just as moral and just as God fearing as I am. They just come to a different interpretation than I do, but I would never minimize that some people say that they're anti-America or they're anti-God. I used to do that, though, but I got to know people like you and being on the set with you on America's Black Forum for seven years and I realized this person loves God. He may support same sex marriages, but that doesn't mean he has less belief in God than I do, and I realized I have to value and embrace and learn from that. I think the problem is sometimes we're unwilling to have the frictions of minds where people come together and have a real debate in how we grow each other and I'm always wanting to learn.
Philosophy also dictates that if I believe in something, if you are someone- It could be a child, elevate me to a higher truth. I'm willing to abandon that to go with the truth. The problem in America today is that some people have invested so much in what they believe that when they know the truth, they're unwilling to abandon it. I'm not that way.
In terms of my vision, my vision is what I want to become in life. You know, I just think there're three things that are very important in life -- something to love, something to look forward to, and something to do. I think those things are something that are very important-something to live, something to do and something to look forward to. My vision is this -- is that I believe that there is no entity in this world that can stop me from doing the things that I do, even if I may have had the experience of the racism and let me tell you. I've had obstacles in my life. I've had many obstacles. I've had many things that could've set back lesser men, but I believe that I'm good. I believe that I'm sincere. I don't articulate anything unless I believe it. I'm not out here fronting for no white man.
People talk about white people as if they're God. That means if they have all the answers to what ails you, that means they have all the solutions so you do. I mean, the way we talk about white people is a form of idolatry. They put on their pants just the way that I do. I can achieve whatever they achieve. No racism can ever keep me away. I don't get up in the morning thinking about racism. I have employees. I have to make a payroll. I have to write columns. I have a broadcast four hours every morning. I try to do things that could move me forward to build a better future for myself. That is my vision of what I can become in life and not necessarily about what I've already seen.
So, you asked about vision. You asked about philosophy --
BOND: Philosophy and style.
WILLIAMS: And style. My style, and I think it's the thing that really helps me -- I always, even with people who sometimes can be my staunchest enemy -- I always speak to people. I always find the good in people. I always try to engage people. I always try to have the style that I'm approachable, that I always like to have the style that I can engage in it, that people can walk up to me and say just about anything and they do it with respect, they do it with civility.
I also have a lot of pride in terms of my style. People know how I feel about smoking. They know how I feel about alcohol. It doesn't matter what you want to do, but my style is to always try to be an example. I want people to just listen to my rhetoric, my style. I want to be an example.
You know, the reason why I can write so well about the things that I write about, and I did say I write well, is because sometimes those are the things that I struggle with. My style is this -- just because I write about something that I struggle with does not mean that I don't understand what the mark is. We all should try to get to the truth. And so, I have a style that I always try to treat people fairly. I always --
I did very well in the marketplace. I've been very successful in the marketplace. I always try to help people realize the American dream. People always talk about, "You're not doing this for black people." I think we need to be involved with doing for people. My style is I don't care about race. I care about the conscience and the heart of an individual. I believe that when Hurricane Katrina came about and people got all worked up because there were so many black people, but my attitude -- if there'd been white people who'd been affected by Katrina, would blacks have reacted differently. We should react because of the human condition. No one should be left out of this equation.
We should not get outraged of the [James] Byrd dragging in Texas because he was black. We should get outraged because it was a human being. We should be outraged about these things, but if we say to the world that only we should be concerned about this because these are our issues, these are our people, then what you're doing you're short-circuiting and leaving out people who'll help you overcome these issues. So my style is that I don't care about your race but I care about your value system and you know what, we can have a conversation, we can have a discussion, but we can do it in a civil way. We can do it in a respectful way. So people find that I'm approachable.
My style is that I'm engaging, but I always want -- I think the hardest thing that we do every day which is our ultimate jihad is working on ourselves twenty-four hours a day. It's not running the businesses. It's not being on the air. It's not writing the commentary. The toughest work that I have to do every day is work on Armstrong Williams, twenty-four hours a day and what I find is that when I work on Armstrong Williams twenty-four hours a day, the corner of the world around me improves every day and that's sometimes what we forget about.
BOND: Now, what kind of work does Armstrong Williams need?
WILLIAMS: Oh, it needs a lot of work. You know, I always want to be honest with people. I don't want to play games. I don't want to say something what people want to hear. Sometimes we live in a society where you want to make people feel good and somebody will come to you and say, "I think I should go into this career." And you know the person should not pursue that career. You know they're going to fail miserably and then five or six years later the person comes back and so sometimes, you know, people ask you how you're doing. I don't want to say, "Oh, I'm doing okay." I want to say, "Well, you know, I'm struggling today. I'm doing the best I can to make it through this day." We live in a society where we always have to tell people that we're okay. And I'm just trying to improve and just be candid and also being comfortable with myself, just like the things you asked me.
You know, people know about the issues of No Child Left Behind. That's a part of my life. I don't want to run away from my life because it makes me who I am today. If people want to talk about it, it's fair game. It's who I am. I've made my mistakes. I've used bad judgment and guess what? If I keep living I'm going to do more of it. That's just the human condition, but it's not where you start out in life. It's not where you are knocked down in life. It's where you end up in life.
BOND: Let me ask you about how leaders are made. Some people think leaders are made in three ways -- great people cause great events and leaders emerge, or movements make leaders, or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate to the time.
WILLIAMS: The latter two.
BOND: The latter two?
BOND: That movements make leaders?
BOND: Do leaders ever make movements?
WILLIAMS: Hitler did.
BOND: Well, could you argue that Hitler took advantage of sort of latent anti-Semitism and German nationalism, that he took advantage of something that was already there but that needed a leader?
WILLIAMS: But he still created a movement. It was not a good movement.
BOND: No, but it was a movement. It was a movement.
WILLIAMS: It was a movement.
BOND: So, what about Martin Luther King? Now, it's arguable that there was going to be a movement in Montgomery and somebody picked him, said, "You be in charge of this." He didn't create it.
WILLIAMS: The times that we were in selected him.
BOND: So, you don't think it ever happens that great people causing great events? That was the choice you didn't make of the three.
WILLIAMS: I think the circumstances and the times make great people. I don't think you start out being great. You don't know who you are until you go through the fires of life, the trials of life. I mean, you look at someone like a Nixon. Look at someone like a Dr. Martin Luther King or Gandhi. It's the time and the circumstances. It's the struggle that make leaders. You cannot be a leader unless you go through a struggle and you've got to have the moral fiber and the moral character and you've got to have moral restraint in order to be a leader lest you end up destroying yourself and many of the people around you.
BOND: What about the prospect that somebody becomes a leader in this field, in these events, and then suddenly he finds him or herself on another occasion, separate from the first, and takes that greatness that he exhibited here and turns into a leadership role here. That can happen.
WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. That happens often. We have examples of that. No question.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or -- and these don't have to be separate -- or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think you have to be able to articulate the agenda of a movement but I think what is even more important than that is that people see in you something you cannot see in yourself. I think the people around you create the leadership because most people who become leaders should never want to become that. If your desire is to become that, if that's what you're sitting around for, you're not going to make the best leader, but if people come to you and especially if you're humble and it's not something that you really want and they demand of you that "We need you at this time, you're the only person that can do this, we've watched your life and we will follow you. We believe in you." Then you already have the trust of the people instead of forcing your trust on the people. I would rather for the people to force me into leadership than the other way around.
BOND: But there are occasions when people force themselves into leadership because of their ego.
WILLIAMS: Like Hitler.
BOND: Yes, or even people in our own society. I don't want to mention any names, but I think there're people who just say, "I'm the leader, you know, follow me."
WILLIAMS: Like Jesse Jackson.
BOND: Well, I won't say that.
WILLIAMS: No, you didn't.
BOND: But somebody who says, "I'm the leader, follow me." And some people follow that person just because that person has said I'm a leader and acts like a leader and looks like a leader and hasn't led --
WILLIAMS: Anybody will follow you for a while. Anybody will give someone a chance, but to earn that trust and to keep it is the real issue.
BOND: Okay. I think I know the answer to this question and you answered it in part in many of the things you've said. Do you have a general philosophy that guides your life and if so, and I'm sure you do, how has it sustained you through challenges or bad times? How does that philosophy sustain you?
WILLIAMS: You know, when I was in college I had an experience where I should've drowned and I was at the Edisto River in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and I'll never forget, I was under the water for twenty-eight minutes and I was going to the bottom of the water, of the river. I could feel the scratches and the bruises and something just whispered -- I can hear it as if I hear it now and I can feel the same thing I felt then -- "Just raise your hand." And I just raised my hand just like a thumb and I was at the bottom and the next thing I knew I was on the banks of the river and the lifeguard said the only thing that saved me when he saw my fingertips and he just grabbed the hand and pulled me out of the water, so I've always believed that from that moment on that my life and my choices -- it's an instinct that I have. It's a feeling that I have.
You know, if no one had ever told -- if the Torah or the Bible or the Quran never existed, in my heart, I know right from wrong, even in the choices I've made and sometimes like St. Augustine says in his Confessions, "Lord, make me good but not just yet." We as men don't always want to be good, but go work on somebody else and come back to me. Even in that, I always can never use the fact that I did not know, even with No Child Left Behind. If I had thought about that long enough, with my writing about it in my column, I would've known that it was wrong and that if it were ever found, that it would come back to bite me. And it's in those moments when I'm in the middle of a storm and in the middle of a controversy, when I want to blame somebody else, that that spirit comes back to me and says, "But wait a minute." And only then when I can look at my own self and the jihad that I spoke of can I learn and grow and be a better person.
The reason why people don't grow is because they find somebody else to blame for what is happening to them. I always go within myself and search myself to find out what was really the root cause of this and that's why I always become a better person.
BOND: I find it interesting that you said that even without the existence of these three great religions you mentioned that you would have these same feelings and I get the impression from what you've said earlier that these feelings come from your parents who were devoutly religious people.
WILLIAMS: It comes from the God force in all of us.
WILLIAMS: No. It's much deeper than my parents.
BOND: But you must've heard it from your parents?
WILLIAMS: You know, as a child it's hard to remember what you've heard from your parents. Something can be embedded in you that is there. I believe that the truth has a biological advantage. It doesn't need the artifice of man to breath. It lives and breathes freely on its own. I believe a child sucking at his mother's breast can pass truth along to that child. I think the same way truth is passed along to us by our Creator and I think if you try to keep the conscience pure, try to keep the conscience good and try to do good, in that cleansed conscience, you can always find the truth that you've searched for. I don't think people have to search for it to find it.
BOND: Let me ask you about race, and I know that earlier you said that you don't think of people's races and you think you about people irregardless of what their race or, as you said, the hue of their skin is. But everybody's got to be conscience of race as we look around. We see this is a black person, this is a white person, and so on. Do you have that kind of consciousness and if you do, how does that affect what you do?
WILLIAMS: Well, you cannot have that. You can't help but have it, given the media's reinforcement of it and it's all around you. You know, I just don't make judgments. You see it, but you make no assumptions about it. I don't make -- when I hear about somebody being racially profiled who happened to be black, that has no affect on me. At all. Now, there's some people who say, "Oh, if that can happen to that brother, that can happen to me." Whatever happens to them, depending on what group you put yourself in --
BOND: You don't think that because it happened to someone like you, it could happen to you?
WILLIAMS: No. It has never happened.
BOND: I know you say it's never happened --
WILLIAMS: And I can only base it on --
BOND: -- but you don't think that it could happen?
BOND: Okay. There's no possibility?
WILLIAMS: In my mind, no.
BOND: Now, do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both?
WILLIAMS: Society and race is a part of society.
BOND: And so it would be both, but the emphasis on society.
BOND: A big emphasis on society.
BOND: Now, is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
WILLIAMS: That may not be a bad thing --
BOND: No, no.
WILLIAMS: -- to be able to transcend. Yes, of course. Experiences can help you transcend and understand there's more to life than the ills of the world and why people suffer than race.
BOND: I was thinking here, we've written all these questions expecting that the person who sits in this chair will be a black person, a man, a woman, relatively young, relatively old, but how does that question fit, if you're asking can there be such a thing as a race-transcending leader and you're thinking about the larger world outside the black world? Can that be so, too?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, race is just a label that we put on things to understand it. When you say somebody's a racist, I mean, there's so much more that you need to understand. It forces people not to search and really understand the human being. You can just say that's what they are and just dismiss them and never deal with them. That's the bad thing about it. It doesn't force us to encounter and to really understand the human being and why they think the way they think. And I believe that no matter what a person may believe in, what they feel, individuals, a good meaning, an experience of wisdom, can always change them and elevate them, but we refuse to do so because we feel -- because they're against us because they're racist, we don't want to have anything to do with them so we just abandon them, just banish them away from society.
BOND: You have said and said over and over again in this interview that you don't see race, that race is not that kind of function and that given a choice between race and society, society would come first. Race would be a part of it. But when you're talking and writing and advancing your philosophy, it seems to me it's often aimed at black people, at people like yourself as commentary on what they are believing or their leaders are believing, so isn't that kind of a contradiction?
WILLIAMS: Oh, we all have contradictions, but I don't think it is in this case. You know, in order to communicate with people, sometimes you have to go to where they are. It doesn't necessarily mean you're there, but a leader, someone who's willing to test the waters with what they believe because they believe they're right, you've got to go to where they are. People are so consumed with race. They're so obsessed with it.
I write about it because if I write about it in the terms of where they are, they come to read it. But I write about it in a way that -- we give it too much power. There're other things that we can do to change our lives, even in the issue of reparations. The first thing I say that, absolutely, people are deserving of their forty acres and a mule. The government deserves to pay that, but the government will not, so why are you going to focus your time and your energies on something that's not going to ever happen? Why don't you focus your time and resources on something where you can make a difference?
Even in the issue of affirmative action. Affirmative action has become a bourgeoisie boondoggle, and you ask them, "Tell me the black people who are benefiting from affirmative action," because we make it seem like it's the first and it's the [last] and if you get them to answer that question and do research, they will tell you it's probably about 3 or 4 percent of black people in this country that really benefit from affirmative action so how can something like that impact your life. Why don't you focus on things that can really make a difference in your life and can have an impact for generations to come? So I go there to talk about it, but I elevate the dialogue in a different way.
BOND: Well, here's a connected question. Do you have a different leadership style if you're dealing with a group that is all black or a group that's all white or even in the middle, a mixed group? Are you different? Is your style different?
WILLIAMS: I'm always the same.
BOND: Always the same?
WILLIAMS: The same conversations, the same reactions -- yes, absolutely, because then if I do that, then I would have to question myself but I know that happens and I know people who do it and I know people that I've associated with and without my ever saying a word, they'll say to me, they say, "You know what, you're consistent. Your conversation is all the same. I can't believe you said that." They said, "Maybe you have a point."
BOND: Well, I can't believe you said it either not because I distrust you or don't think you're being honest, but because when I speak from the same text to black audience, white audience, I'm different because the audience is different toward me and that makes me different toward them.
WILLIAMS: Well, when you're talking about issues of morality and moral striving and the human condition and personal responsibility and accountability and when you're talking about equality of justice and when you're talking about how to create a society of economics, how you build entrepreneurship and home ownership, that is something that transcends and touches the lives of everyone. And those are my topics. Now, someone may ask me a question in that direction, but in terms of my address, those are not the issues that I find myself talking about.
BOND: I don't want to beat this in the ground.
WILLIAMS: Beat it.
BOND: But I bet you if you read that list to the black audience here and you read that list to the white audience here, both audiences would like it, but the black audience would be saying, "Yes, sir. Okay. Say it. Preach, talk again," and they're back and forth to you in a way this audience will not be back and forth to you, not because they dislike you.
WILLIAMS: But are you saying their expression --
BOND: Their expressiveness.
WILLIAMS: Are you saying that their expression says that they are more acceptable of it than someone who's less --
BOND: No, not at all. I'm just saying they're more expressive.
WILLIAMS: That's true. That's very true.
BOND: And I think it's got to affect you. Because you get a level of appreciation here that you're not getting here, and it doesn't mean these people dislike you or these people like you more. It's just these people immediately surround you with warmth, and these people wait until it's over and then they stand up and yell and applaud.
WILLIAMS: But, see, the difference there is, is that when I speak to the evangelicals I get the same reaction.
WILLIAMS: And so it all depends upon their upbringing and what they were shaped by.
WILLIAMS: That's the difference.
BOND: Well, see, I never talk to the evangelicals.
WILLIAMS: See, I do, often, and they have a lot of -- I mean, they're jumping on their feet. You can hardly finish a line, so I'm accustomed to seeing it. They react the same to the message and sometimes people don't react if I'm not in an audience that understands my philosophy or supports my philosophy. They're a little more suspicious before they give you anything, but once they begin to trust you and believe, "Well, you know what, he's not anti-black, he's not pro-white. He just has a philosophy for everybody," and then they begin to give you, because I've found this out in Chicago a couple of weeks ago when I was there. This audience was very distant from me. They had made up their minds they were not going to even give me anything, a clap, but after about eight minutes into the speech, it just turned around because they got to know me.
BOND: Now, do you think that it's divisive to focus on black leadership? We've talked earlier on about black leadership and black leaders, but is it divisive to focus on black leadership?
BOND: Why isn't it, to be race specific about a kind of a leadership?
WILLIAMS: Well, you have to understand. This is a legacy of our country. There was a time in our country where blacks had to have their own institutions of higher learning, their own churches, their own clubs, because they were not welcome and they found solace and strength and empowerment through this, whether it's Jack & Jill, whether it's a fraternity -- Phi Beta Sigma, Alpha Kappa Alpha -- they found strength there and this has been a driving force of what has sustained them in many of their communities. And so, if a society was willing to base laws and treatment strictly based on the fact that they were black and use it in such a very destructive way, why can't we focus on it and use it in a very positive way to raise up communities and still build that glue which held that community together for such a long time before the laws were in place to live out the ideas which were always in the Constitution that we all are created equal so, no, I don't think it's divisive. I think it's very healthy.
BOND: Well, since non-divisive, do black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans? Is a person known as a black leader obligated to help black Americans?
WILLIAMS: What is interesting about that is that -- and I find this interesting, I find that as a fascinating question. I have many whites tell me, "Well, I can't do anything for the blacks, they're not going to listen to me, black people. They're not going to trust me, but, you know, I wish I could say this to them." So already built in this country, there're people who believe because of the hue of their skin, they cannot communicate with this audience, so if they're believing this, there is always a discomfort in even believing they can make a difference and because the problems in this community have reached epidemic levels --
It's no different than the Nation of Islam. I think the Nation of Islam does the best job when it deals with refining and restoring black men to respectability, real self-esteem, and real opportunity in America. If you've got something that works, you may consider it to be divisive. If it works, then it's a good thing. If it's uplifting and empowering your community, I'm all for it, and if that means that a black leader can walk into community because there're certain young blacks who distrust white people because of their history, because you cannot dismiss their distrust, because you have a history that has fed this for such a long time, but if it's you that can elevate them to a better way of life and improve their lot in life, I'm all for that. I would not knock it.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader or maybe you haven't made it yet.
WILLIAMS: I haven't seen it yet.
BOND: Well, so far?
WILLIAMS: What I would say is, I --
BOND: Up to now.
WILLIAMS: If I could be so bold --
BOND: Be bold.
WILLIAMS: I actually believe and I've been told this, but I actually kind of believe it, that more than conservatives, especially black conservatives in this country, I think through my writings and being on the radio and doing commentary, being on places like BET Lead Story and America's Black Forum, I'm one of the first to have been given a forum for people to understand these different ideas and a different way of thinking, of black conservatives, and I think it has fueled the industry and given rise to other blacks who feel this way to come out, because oftentimes -- I get hundreds of letters of people who say you gave me the strength and the courage to believe in a value system. Some young girls write me, "You gave me the strength and courage to say that virginity is all right." I mean, I believe that God has blessed me in a way where through my participation in the media and in the marketplace to really fuel some of the legitimacy of this way of thinking.
BOND: Now, do you think there is a crisis in black communities today? Our mutual friend, Juan Williams, has written a book about a crisis in black leadership and he, I think, extends that to the communities these leaders spring from. Is there a crisis today and if there is, what contributes to it and is it more severe, less severe than in times past?
WILLIAMS: Well, in times past, you had laws on the books. You had less opportunity and you were subjected to so many other things. I think it would be very difficult to understand why certain communities have not reached a certain level of success and achievement. I don't believe it's a crisis in communities. I believe that it's a crisis in households. It goes back to something I said earlier. If you look at the Jewish communities, one of the things that hold them together -- it's not so much the money that they make -- is that they keep their families together. You will find very few Jewish households that don't have a father, very few that don't have Shabbat. You may call it Shabbat, but it's a way to get together with family members, to be in contact, to interact. They've kept their communities together. You look at any community in the world where you've kept the family and the household together, that community thrives.
The crisis is in the definition of the family and the fact that men are not in the household. If there were men in the households with their families and their wives and their children, I'm willing to bet you that 60 to 70 percent of the problems that we discussed today would go away, so it's not a crisis that black people have or the inner city or urban America may have. It's a crisis in family that would happen to any family if they had to deal with the issues where 70 percent of households don't have a father and about 52 percent of them have babies out of wedlock. When you have those kind of conditions in any community, you will have this kind of epidemic crisis.
BOND: But, still, these statistics you're quoting, these are statistics on black families or the absence of black families. These are not American statistics. These are black statistics.
WILLIAMS: But, my point is these statistics would be the same for any family with these kind of pathologies that we're speaking of.
BOND: But the statistics themselves suggest that it is black families that have these pathologies to a greater extent than do white families in America.
WILLIAMS: And you must ask yourself why is it that they make these choices. Why is that a father can bring a child in the world and feel no connection to that child? It's far deeper than something that money and studies can resolve, and especially when you look at families that keep their families together, keep their children together. You know, we like to focus on the families that don't have -- it's something that you've got to resolve yourself. The government can never resolve this problem. You can spend all the money. You can have all the debate, but in order to resolve this problem, it's something that has to be resolved in each individual family.
BOND: What kinds of leaders does contemporary society demand and how will future problems demand different kinds of leaders or will it?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I just don't -- I think that problems are basically the same. I just think they come in different shapes and different forms, but it's still the same problem. I think most problems are rooted in a lack of moral striving, greed, selfishness, disrespect for others, and people wanting to have dominion over others. I think what is consistent about leaders in the world is that people are willing to sacrifice for others. They're willing to share.
The thing about capitalism that people forget about, and it's a good thing that my father taught us growing up as young men and women, is that you cannot empower others without empowering yourself. It's never an issue for me to give and to share because I realize I'm going to get it back tenfold. It's why I go -- when I'm church on Sunday I pay my tithes. I pay my tithes even when I could not afford to pay my tithes because I always had this belief that whatever I give and I give sincerely, not because I'm expecting anything, I will get it back tenfold. People don't really believe that. People believe because they're struggling so at this moment they can't afford to give anything, and that is something -- that is misplaced values.
Even in Katrina, people who felt they had nothing, even if they only had five dollars, if they took a dollar and gave it to somebody who was worse off than them, in time, they would see that money tenfold. And I think what leadership has to show is that we have to get away from greed.
I did not understand the Enron debacle, how you could take someone's pension of people who worked for you for thirty years and just exploit them. You ask yourself, "Where does that come from?" And it's just not anything that I can relate to. I think that more than anything else -- I think we can deal with a lot of issues that we have no control over. There're things that are going to happen that it's fate, but I think in terms of people's behavior and the choices that they make --
I mean, you look at what they do in Islamic countries. I mean, they believe that we're the enemy because of their way of life, but much of their problem has to do with the way they run these fiefdoms, the way these kings and these sheiks live. They have all this money and all this money and the people starve. They starve them and yet they expect us to love them more than love them themselves. Look at the example they make, but yet they make Americans to be the scapegoat. It's not just in these countries. It's in this country, too. People have to get back to sharing and really taking time to build young men and women, even if you bring them in your company and it doesn't benefit you on the bottom line.
One of the things I'm proudest of is that in the history of Graham Williams Group, over fifteen years, we probably have had a hundred and fifty young men come through that really didn't add much to the bottom line, but we developed them into young men. We developed their work ethic. We helped them buy and own homes for the first time. We gave them a lease and we gave them something that money cannot buy --character, self-respect, and dignity and we stay in touch with them. We don't have time anymore. It's all about me, me, me. We want to do for ourselves. That's what leadership does because when you raise a young man up, especially when they've just expected to die by the time they're twenty-one years old and you make them to believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can become in life and how they can change their community because, see, look I can't save the world. All I can do is change the community where I am. And if everyone adopts that attitude, the world will change.
BOND: This is a natural segue to the last question. As a society, how can we foster the most effective leaders for the future? You've talked a bit about it with these young men you're dealing with, but in a larger sense, how can we as a society know that we're going to have a good supply of leadership figures in the future?
WILLIAMS: Look, it is amazing the state of education in this country. You just think about this -- over the last year or so. China has developed over 200,000 scientists and doctors, and in this country, it's only about 30,000. You know, we've gotten rid of vocational schools and these other specialty schools that we grew up, when I grew up where you could go in and use a skill. You have to understand -- not everybody's going to do well in college and there're going to be those that will barely get out of high school.
You know what, my family was like a microcosm of the world. I had a little of everything. I had a brother who failed third grade twice, who barely got out of high school. He had no idea how he was going to make ends meet, but the great thing that my father taught him was work ethic and discipline. You see, if you know how to work, you know how to be creative, and you know how to be imaginative, you can do just about anything. See, we don't encourage people to be creative and use enough imagination in the marketplace.
My brother, Bruce, God bless his soul, had no idea what he was going to do. He just happened to be driving by a cemetery one day and he saw them out there digging graves and he figured he could do that and so he decided to quit his job at Sara Lee. You know how he started digging graves? Using his hands, moving the dirt. Oh yeah, moving the dirt. Then he started with a rake. Then he started with a shovel and then they came, the diggers and the backhoe. He turned this into where he makes over a quarter of a million dollars a year in the deep South because he's not afraid of work. He's not afraid of failure. And he knows that one thing that he can do, he can work, and, see, we all have gifts but our gifts are not the same. There's something that you can do far better than I can do, but there're things that I can do -- but you've got to believe that you can do them well and so you've got to discover that which you are best at and become the expert in that area so even among all my brothers and sisters and there're ten of them, they all do very well. They all are very successful. 50 percent of them are entrepreneurs, some of them work in university system, but they learned how to work because you know why? They have a value system.
Without a value system, without a work ethic, without a moral compass, we're doomed for society and the thing that we try to do -- you see, there're five ways that you can make wealth in this country. There're five ways you can do that. You can marry it. You can steal it. You can win the lottery. And you can earn it. Or you can -- I'll come up with it. They're give ways that you can make wealth, but you know the ones that where 95 percent of the people keep it -- and you can inherit it, that's the fifth way. You know the main way that people keep wealth. By earning it. Even when you inherit it, even when you divorce and get it, even when you hit the lottery, even when you steal it, statistics shows that you don't keep it nearly as long as people who learn to earn it by their sweat of their brow. The Bible tells us that man must work by the sweat of their brow and if you work by the sweat of your brow --
You see, the thing about is that we're in the me generation. We wanted it now, the microwave mentality. We don't want to wait. You see, the great thing about -- and I love St. Augustine because St. Augustine tells us why do people cheat on their wives? Because there's an immediate reward of that sex. Why do people steal? There's an immediate reward of robbing someone of their goods. Why do people lie? There's an immediate reward of robbing someone of the truth. But doing good is an investment. You don't see it right away. You don't see it in two months or three months or six months. It kicks in over time. We should want the investment that's going to sustain us for a lifetime, not for tomorrow and not for next week, and so we don't teach children about patience. Patience is an honest man's revenge.
Until we get to the point where we stop selling drugs, stop fleecing society, and we build society and build it through character, through morality, and understand that in the end that you win because my mother's best saying when we were growing up -- "Lord, make my last days my best days." People want their earlier days [to be] their best days and so it takes sacrifice. It takes discipline.
I have worked hard to become the Armstrong Williams I am today. Not run up huge credit card debt, keeping my credit clean by paying my bills on time, so when I go out to buy property I have a very good credit score. Giving someone my word. Knowing that my word means more than anything else because if someone believes you at your word, they can trust you. Some people lie and scapegoat and so people don't trust them. People assume because they get a mortgage on a bank that if they don't pay the mortgage they don't understand that's stealing because you entered into a contract. There's something about the honor system. You see, for me when I go into a bank, you talk about where the boys get -- I get anything, because you know what, my word is good. It's more valuable than money. Your word's your character. If you say to somebody I'm going to be at an appointment at seven o'clock, you should be there at 6:45. Those are the things that we don't teach. Those are the things that separate the ordinary from the extraordinary, that little extra and that's what we've gotten away from.
BOND: Armstrong Williams, thank you for an extraordinary interview.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mr. Bond.
BOND: Thank you.