Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Path Toward Public Relations

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.

BOND: Okay.

WILLIAMS: That doesn't surprise you, of course.