Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Historic Events: Birmingham Church Bombing

BOND: Indeed so. Do you remember particular events, historical or personal, that you view as critical to your understanding of American society, things that happened in the larger world that had an impact on you that made you understand what your place was in the society or what your place was expected to be in the society? Do you remember such things?

DAVIS: Well, I — I remember the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. That had — of course, many people talk about the impact of that.

BOND: Did you know any of those girls?

DAVIS: Yeah, I did. I knew three of them. One of them, Cynthia Wesley, lived practically next door, and Carole Robertson was the younger sister of one of my very good friends and my sister's — one of my sister’s friends. My mother was very close with Alpha Robertson who was Carole’s mother and as a matter of fact, my mother drove Alpha who was Carole’s mother to the church to pick her up after having heard about the bombing, so I was studying in France at that time and I — I mean, I can remember, and I don’t have a lot of really vivid memories from the era, but I remember the telephone booth in which I placed a long distance call, transcontinental call, or whatever you call it, to my parents to find out, you know, what really happened and I can remember feeling so totally alone in Paris because this was not an event that was widely reported. It happened not too long before the assassination of Kennedy and so those two events are kind of wedded in my mind.

BOND: Yes, I’m surprised this was not more of an event in France. I don’t know why. I guess I’ve stereotypes about the French and would’ve thought this would’ve been a bigger thing for them.

DAVIS: Well, I mean, it was reported, I believe, maybe in Le Monde but there was no sense in the streets that this had touched people. And so — yeah, I think that that made it impossible for me not to lead a life that would be dedicated to social justice. I’m not saying that is what put me on that path, but — because I’d always been there — but that reinforced the importance of building communities of struggle. Because I knew I needed to feel — I needed some place to feel at home with people who had the same kind of emotional response that I did and I hand't — you know, I couldn’t find anyone. I think I was the only black student in this program Junior Year Abroad. So, yeah, that was a pretty devastating moment. That was a really devastating moment in my life.

BOND: And you write about James Baldwin speaking at Brandeis and his speech being cut short by the announcement of the Cuban Missile Crisis and your own feeling that people were reacting to this in a bad way, that they seemed to say, "The end of the world was coming so I better go out and have a good time rather than seeing what I can do about the end of the world." Do you recall that?

DAVIS: Yes, yes, I do. I mean, I do. I remember people taking off driving to Canada and, you know, my response was, you know, “What is that going to do? How are you going to be any safer in Canada than you are here?” It was this panic, this collective panic that prevented us from talking about what was really going on.

BOND: And during your college years, you also hear Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael? What did —

DAVIS: Not Stokely. Well, Stokely was later, but I did hear Malcolm X speak at Brandeis and — and yes, that was an evening when I felt so proud to be black because there weren’t that many moments, particularly attending a school that was overwhelmingly white, but in that period, we hadn’t developed what we might now call a race consciousness, so I can’t describe it in those terms. Malcolm X was an incredible speaker and he held the whole audience — it was spellbound and I just remember being so — feeling so good.