Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education: Undergraduate

BOND: You talked a while ago about the high school teachers, "If Morehouse's good enough for me, why is it not good enough for you?" and the friendships. You write about friendships that are strained because you made this choice to step outside the mold. What other times have you felt this pressure to do what everybody else is doing and you've not done it?

JORDAN: Well, I think that social pressure just sort of goes along in a kind of situation. But it's not -- it's not unusual. Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, a friend of mine, went to the Navy, came back from the Navy. He had gone to undergraduate school in Mississippi. And there's a big party for him. And a great aunt is there and she comes and she says, "Now, Ray, darling, I understand you're going to law school." And he says, "Yes." She says, "Where are you going to law school?" She says -- he says, "Aunt So and So, I'm going to law school at Harvard University." And then she fanned. She said, "What's the matter? You couldn't get into Old Miss?"

My point is that -- is that there is provincialism where people expect you to follow a certain tradition. And so these high school teachers who had gone to Morehouse or Morris Brown or Clark [College] and were good teachers thought that my being a good student meant that I should follow in their footsteps. And so to step out of that tradition is jolting sometimes.

BOND: Yes, but how do you -- what makes you step out of it? I mean, someone else would have said, "Oh, okay. I will go to Morehouse or Clark or Morris Brown."

JORDAN: Well, I've just always followed my own intuition. It was -- it was different. It was a challenge. It was something out of the ordinary that I decided on my own to do. Mind you, Julian, that August 15th, my birthday, 1953, before I went, my mother wrote me a note, left it on my bed and said, "We want you to go wherever you want to go. But if you go to Howard -- socially, financially, academically, you might be better off. But you make your own decision." So even my -- the CEO of my life was concerned about my ability to adjust in that circumstance. Now, they took me to school. There's this incredible scene at East College the night that they're leaving me. My brother Windsor, my youngest brother, shakes my hand and rushes off in the car, happy that for the first time in his life --

BOND: He's the big man.

JORDAN: He's got the bed and the bathroom to himself, and the bedroom to himself. My mother, tears in her eyes, hugs me, slips $50 in my hand, and says, "God bless you, son." My father shakes my hand and says, "You can't come home." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You can't come home." I said, "What do you mean, Daddy?" He says, "The counselor says that you're reading less than two hundred words a minute and your classmates are reading between six hundred, eight hundred a minute. Which means when you're reading history of civilization, they'll be in Chapter 6 and you'll be struggling to get out of the preface. But you can't come home." He said, "In 1951 you used a plane geometry book that had been used by a white student in 1935. But you can't come home." So I said, "What am I supposed to do, Daddy?" He said, "Read, boy. Read."

That's all he said. And that's how he left me before I went into that assembly at East College where I was the only black in my class. "Read, boy. Read."

And when I graduated four years ago [later], my brother came and shook my hand, my mother, tears in her eyes, gave me a hundred dollars. My father just walks up to me, shakes my hand and says, "You can come home now." Just -- I've never forgotten that. And that was -- I mean, I understood what I had to do.