Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Leadership Experiences

BOND: When you look back over your life, there's got to be a point where you say, if not in these words, but at least you conceptualize this, "I am a leader, people listen to me." Do you remember when that happened? And I'm sure it happened. Don't say it didn't happen.


RASPBERRY: No, if you'd ever asked me are you a leader, I'd given you a quick and resounding no.


BOND: Right.


RASPBERRY: But I take your question seriously and literally and I take it that you include under the rubric of leadership not just people who head organizations.


BOND: Right, exactly, yes, yes. Not at all people like that. Or not exclusively people like that.


RASPBERRY: I suppose -- I don't remember an incident or a day. I do remember slowly learning that people -- some people depended on me to help them sort out a lot of stuff that was going on.


BOND: Is this happening after you become a columnist or at a period before?


RASPBERRY: After I'd become a columnist -- but, you know, this was, what, in 1966, I was, what, just thirty.


BOND: Let me interrupt you a minute. This is a period when you're influencing people remotely. You don't know them. They read you in the paper --




BOND: What about earlier in college or high school? Any leadership positions that you held or were you ever in a position of formal leadership in these occasions? Or even in the military?


RASPBERRY: In the military, no. I was a grunt who learned to avoid work pretty much. But -- this will sound strange to you -- Indianapolis at the time I was a student there was a town where, and I don't think this is an exaggeration, virtually all the African American kids who were in college knew each other or knew about each other. The numbers weren't that large.

BOND: Right.

RASPBERRY: So in that little context, there were some of us who sort of helped set agendas, who we would've run from the idea of "leadership," but we formed youth chapters of the NAACP and we formed intercollegiate clubs and we formed picket lines. We did the things that we thought we were called upon by our age and station to do and there were some of us who took some pride in making some of these things happen, but I tended not to run for office or for leadership, formal leadership.


BOND: But you're displaying informal leadership. You're not the head, but you're one of the agenda setters. Is that true?


RASPBERRY: Well, I think the that's -- I wasn't consciously aware of it, but -- of course, and I would say it's probably more accurate to say that I was in my various settings part of a small agenda-setting cadre. There were two or three of us in this organization who would set an agenda and maybe a different configuration on another, but I liked being one of that leadership cadre. That was important to me. And at my church also. In the youth part of the church I was always pleased to be among those who could be counted on and that was the important thing about leadership at that stage of my life, was that knowing that I could be counted on and people were --


BOND: So you're conscious that people are saying, again, not in these words -- "What does Raspberry think? What does Raspberry think we ought to do?"


RASPBERRY: I was aware of that in various contexts, not as a constant but as a recurring theme. I must say, you may want to do this more sequentially but your question reminded me of something that happened to me. I was off in some place, Norfolk, I believe it was, making speech once. This was after I'm now a newspaper columnist. And a man came up to me and said, "I want to tell you something, I hope it doesn't embarrass you, but -- " And he's a leader in something in his hometown and he said, "Somebody asked me the other day what I thought about whatever this current issue was and I said, 'I don't know yet, I haven't read Raspberry.' " And I thought what a scary thing to say, but obviously very gratifying. I mean, the fact that people really do pay attention to your views on things. That takes some getting used to.


BOND: I would bet.


RASPBERRY: Because it's -- you know, you won't believe this now, but it's possible to be wrong and what do you do when you're wrong and people are following what you say? So it makes you -- it makes you skittish or could. It also stopped me from being as much of a smart ass as I'm sometimes inclined to be. Sometimes I'd like to take shots. I mean, it's fun to take shots. But the discovery that at least a few people out there will take this seriously and literally takes the fun out of the game for me.