Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

BOND: Congressman Rangel, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. We appreciate you taking this time.

RANGEL: Thank you for your patience with me.

BOND: No, not at all. I want to start out with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. What did it mean to you when you first heard that the Supreme Court had made this ruling?

RANGEL: I was not overly impressed. I am afraid that if there’s a room in heaven reserved for leaders or black leaders, it would not surprise me if I wasn’t on that invitation or list. I had felt that Thurgood Marshall and those in the NAACP were struggling so hard against the odds that this country was so steeped in racism, that when it got to the point that there was a national victory in the United States Supreme Court, I -- who was still not a high school graduate -- was not overly impressed with the Court. And unlike so many of my Southern friends, as my wife ofttimes reminds me, I had less relationship with white folks than Southerners did, so all my life has been Harlem. So I got out the Army in ’52, went back to high school. I just started New York University, and quite frankly, I was more concerned about getting out of the hell hole that I was in than being able to appreciate the historic nature of that great Supreme Court victory.

BOND: So if it didn’t mean much to you then, what do you think it has meant as of right now? What has the effect been?

RANGEL: That at least the Court knows what is right and what is wrong, but as a nation, I would be hell bent to find out what the hell has changed in terms of the segregation that I see in our public school system wherever I go. The inferiority of the education, the rates of high school dropouts. Theoretically, I think it makes a lot of sense that we moved forward on the law, but just as though I heard in 1948 that Truman had desegregated the Army, it wasn’t my Army. I was there ’48, ’49, ’50, ’51 and they told me we were desegregated, but I was getting shot at in Korea in a black outfit with white officers and it never entered my mind their lack of sincerity.

BOND: Has it had any effect on your life up to date, up to now -- the Brown decision? You left the Army. You went back to de facto segregated schools in Harlem. Then you go to college.

RANGEL: Oh, no, no, no.


RANGEL: No. You see, when I was a poor kid in Harlem in segregated schools, that was different. The difference between Rangel sixty years ago as a high school dropout at 132nd Street & Lenox Avenue and Rangel, the Chairman of a powerful committee, still at 135th & Lenox Avenue is the G.I. Bill and the G.I. Bill did more to shatter racism and the segregation for me. I went to New York University. I went to St. John’s University. And so the money and the tuition shattered any degree of racism in wanting me.

As a matter of fact, when they asked me which university I wanted to go after giving me a hard time at the Veterans Administration, I asked which one was the most expensive and when I got my scholarships, which I had many offers, I found out which one paid the most because some of them I couldn’t afford to take, so -- no, segregation was not a problem for me. As a matter of fact, I just attended the reunion of the graduation of the New York University including the School of Commerce, and it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t know anybody there because I was a subway student. I had a couple of jobs. You get on the subway. The classes are so big. So, my wife who went to Wilberforce and so many of my friends who enjoyed the historically black colleges, they probably got more of an education than I did but I was shooting for the degree and that’s what counted.

BOND: Now, go back to your early days. Who are the people who had the most significance in shaping your life and making you who you are today? Who were early influences on you?

RANGEL: The — poverty was the motivating factor in my life. You know. I went into the Army in 1948, to beat poverty, lack of opportunity — I didn’t know any black folks that had succeeded. Even my brother who really was my father and my best friend, my campaign manager, my buddy — I mean, he was everything, but he never graduated from school and my sister, of course, was a source of inspiration because I came home with all the medals and saw her in a white nurse outfit and she was the star. She was the one that broke the barriers saying that we can beat Lenox Avenue. And I guess my grandfather, the elevator operator. He had — when I came home and told him I was going to be a lawyer and a lot of it had to do because I just wanted to impress somebody.

When they asked — when I took the aptitude test and they said I should be a mortician or an electrician, so I knew at the VA that was strung out, but when I raised so much hell and when the head came out, John Becatoris, and he looked at me and he says, "Well, what the hell is it that you want to be?" That was one of the most defining moments in my life. I knew what I didn’t want to do. I had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. So I figured since I was staying with my grandfather and wanted to impress somebody — he was one of the last elevator operators to manually handle the main elevator at 100 Center Street, New York, the criminal court building, and the only thing that he would get excited about was when those judges and district attorneys and lawyers, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give him one when I come home and say, "Guess what, Grandpop, I’m going to become a lawyer." Well, he never stopped laughing.

BOND: Really?

RANGEL: But the truth of the matter is that he saw his grandson in the district attorney’s office in the very same building that he worked in for over thirty-five years, so that was inspiration enough for me and where I was fifty years ago, sixty years ago, I’m afraid so many youngsters find themselves in today and that is not having anybody but anyone, at least to plant the seed as to what they can be and the inspirations of the Malcolm Xs and the Garveys and the Adam Powells and the Kings — that’s not in our street today. I felt that all around me, and I even went down to march. But that was already after I had decided I had to get out of the situation that, hell, I went in the Army, I got shot up, I come back home, and I have the same opportunity.

Of course, I really didn’t think I needed all that high school diploma stuff. I really didn’t, and I didn’t know until I applied for a job that the guy that I used to give the GED test in the Army that I needed it, but once I found out, it made all the difference in the world.

BOND: Were there teachers who had any influence on you?

RANGEL: There was a teacher named Nettie Messenger. She just passed away in L.A. She was a substitute teacher at PS 89. And I took her purse, just to get a little attention. And after she got all frustrated I gave it back to her, but I was in charge of my class and since substitute teachers had to know they weren’t in charge. But over the years she appreciated my spunk and even when I dropped out of school we stayed in touch with each other and seeing how proud she was when I went back to school, I would say, after I made the decision — yes. But, you know something as a substitute for all of this inspiration that a lot of people were able to have — when Lenox Avenue knew that I decided to become a lawyer, all of Lenox Avenue, all of the Lenox Avenue, all of the Hotel Theresa where I worked, everyone thought, "If this bum can do it for us — " I’m telling you, it — I mean, at the hotel, I was a desk clerk.

[Jackie] "Moms" Mabley and the rest of them that live there would insist that they stopped screaming and cursing when they saw me reading the book. When the FBI came to investigate when I was appointed as Assistant U.S. Attorney, everybody in the neighborhood said they didn’t know me. They, everybody and the judge — one judge that I had down there, a white guy, that was the father of a law student, he called me. He says, "Charlie, you got to tell the FBI the truth." I said, "Judge, I have a lot of problems. Which is the problem? I’ll be able to explain what it is. What is their problem?" He said, "Where you live." I said, "Judge, I got a lot of problems, a lot of problems, but where I live is not one of them." And I came home and the boys were on the block and they said, "What the hell are you doing here? The FBI’s been looking for you." And who was the FBI?

BOND: So they thought you would’ve run?

RANGEL: Yeah. Tall, white guy, crew haired and they carried these big tape recorders looking for Charlie Rangel on 32nd Street. I had to knock on doors of people that these hoodlums had gone to and say you don’t know Charlie and say, "Hey, it’s okay. I’m an Assistant U.S. Attorney." And like one guy says, "Yeah right, sure you are."

BOND: Now, in your political life -- I mean, you’ve worked with the who’s who. I’m thinking about David Dinkins and Basil Paterson, Ron Brown, whose dad ran the Theresa Hotel, Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Kennedy -- but let me ask you about somebody whose name is not that well known across the country, J. Raymond Jones. What did Jones mean to you? Tell us who he was and what he meant to you.

RANGEL: J. Raymond Jones was the first black county -- democratic county leader in the country. He came here from St. Thomas. He told the story that he came as a stowaway and the same day that he got off the ship, they made the Virgin Island people citizens it took months to find out that he didn’t have to be a stowaway. He was self-trained, very spectacular guy. He was so far removed away from me. He was the national leader. He was the one that spurred on the late and the great Adam Clayton Powell. He negotiated between the Kennedys and the Johnsons and -- that’s Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy. He was advisor to mayors and governors. He was a political big shot, and I was just a little guy on the block, working in the District leaders and trying to see what space I could make politically for myself. But there did come a time that he aspired for public office himself and the political leader that I had was not supporting him. So when he sent for me and said, "I understood you want to run against the local leader," I thought it was because of my intellect, my ability to lead. All he wanted is someone to make some noise in that club. And then I checked out the main guy and the main inspiration for me -- and this is, you know, post-graduation, post-assistant U.S. Attorney, so I’m no kid. I’m thirty years old, I’m thirty-one years old, so I’m mature.

The guy that was running for eleven years against my so-called Democratic leader was Percy Sutton. So when I saw Percy wasn’t running after running so long and J. Raymond Jones, the powerful candidate, you know, the maker of Connie Motley as a judge and as a borough president and Bob Carter -- I mean, he only hung out with national leaders -- and the right hand to Adam Clayton Powell. When he had said he was going to endorse me, first he asked me how much support I had. It’s strange how sincere you can be when you’re exaggerating your support. Yeah, I said, "Basically, if you’re supporting me, I got over half the club." When he said he wanted to see these people, where the heck could I take him? I lived in one room so I got the local undertaker and the hardware store guy and the boys on the block put on ties and we thought we were giving him a real show for his brilliance in selecting me to become the Democratic leader of a large assembly district in Harlem.

As it turned out, I lost the election because Percy supported someone else there and so that happened. But a strange thing happened. Even though I was a loser in the election, I was J. Raymond Jones’s man.

BOND: Okay. And that was like a stamp of approval.

RANGEL: It was, but I didn’t get anything, you know? And so Percy and I got together during the campaign. And I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, and I was the new guy on the block, but we said "There’s so much out here, why are we fighting each other when we could come together?" So Percy Sutton -- the well-known NAACP guy, the civil rights guy, the Tuskegee Airman, the neighborhood lawyer -- and I joined and formed a club and we haven’t looked back since.

Now, J. Raymond Jones, how did he fit into it? Well, Percy’s club was considered a reform club. And the regular J. Raymond Jones hated the reform club and so when I told J. Raymond Jones, "You got to know Percy Sutton, we gotta work this thing out together." And J. Raymond Jones said, "Those Sutton brothers are going to eat you up alive." I said, "But they know I exist, Mr. Leader. I mean, you -- you’ve gone on to other things, you know, with the Connie Motleys and the J. Raymond Jones and then Adam Powell, but I’m out here and I have no club except the one we put together."

We finally got Sutton and Jones together and what a team they turned out to be. And with the exception of Percy running for mayor, we haven’t lost an election. Then that brought in the David Dinkins, who’s my political brother, the Basil Patersons, and it has just been so very very exciting, but in my offices in Washington and New York, I got the picture of J. Raymond Jones there.

Also, I might add, that as close he was in negotiating Adam Powell through all of his difficulties and as hard I worked in my district to support Adam Clayton Powell who I’m certain that history is going to record, notwithstanding his flamboyance, as being one of the most successful legislators that we’ve had in recent years, but something triggered in Adam that even when we won the United States Supreme Court decision, Adam could not come back home and when Nelson Rockefeller sent me there to talk to him, to negotiate him coming back without civil or criminal penalties, it was clear to me that not only was Adam not coming back, but because I had been on television week after week supporting Adam Powell against outside attacks, I then became a part of the Adam Powell problem where they wanted to get rid of everybody that was running on that ticket for new fresh blood, so I became the new fresh blood. And J. Raymond Jones who had helped me to try to get Adam back became a supporter after being a lifelong friend and supporter of Adam Powell. So if there was a guy that I know I made proud, it would be J. Raymond Jones. He was so much like my grandfather.

BOND: Really?

RANGEL: Not any compliments or anything. Maybe a pat on the shoulder. I don’t — they didn’t have to say you’re doing good. You just felt it.

BOND: Congressman, you said in an interview earlier on that people— everybody in your neighborhood treated you like you were their kid. How did you get to be the neighborhood's kid and how did you get to be this feeling of self-confidence that you could do these things that other kids didn't think they could do? Where'd that come from?

RANGEL: Four years in the Army helped me a great deal. I mean, you don't know anybody that could give orders to eighteen cannoneers to get fire on the enemy seven miles away giving directions to 155 millimeter howitzers. That makes you important. But, no, even before I got into the Army, and a lot of it's in the book, I couldn't believe that they would want me to be out there in the field acting, you know -- and so I just got dressed up, which I liked to do, in my Class A uniform, got myself a clipboard, and before we went to Korea, hey, I was well-known at the main fort because they knew I was with the colored outfit on the base and the color outfit on the base knew that I was up there.

It worked out for me, and someone once said, "Assume the virtue if you have it not." It worked for me on the block. I went to a Catholic church in one block and hoodlums in the other block and I had to survive both blocks. And I just like people and, you know, someone said, "Well, where did you pick up the talents to become a leader?" And I almost laughed because I kind of believe if you're in a group and you want to get something done, you can't get it just being quiet and letting someone else do it. So in the book, I've said my mom got sick and I had to live with her crazy uncle, her crazy brother, Uncle Herbert in the Bronx. And I went to a white school for a year and my uncle couldn't get over how his black nephew was in charge of the Black Pirates, a group that I formed, and they were all white.

What the hell. You play what you have to work with, you know? And we had our codes and all of that. And so I think the inspiration to succeed means that in life you have to find out how you can make your path a lot easier.

Now, there's a pre-Army. Then there's an Army. Then there's a post-Army. That post-Army made me the kid in the block because half of the kids didn't have fathers, but at that time, those fathers cared about more than just their kids. And those of us who didn't have fathers would enjoy listening to the stories of the fathers who cared about all of us. And then if after that group you tell them that you want to become a lawyer and a politician -- after they get over the laughs and find out that you're prepared to work at it, two or three jobs, like the son of Charlie never had. There was a Jewish hardware store guy and his son wasn't all that he wanted him to be, but I was. I was.

BOND: So you became a surrogate son?

RANGEL: For the community. And even today I use the word "thank you" so much because all of the people that gave us — you know, right now, I'm chairing the Ways & Means Committee. The most exciting thing that comes out of this is my neighborhood saying, "We won at last." You know, they may not even know what it is, but they kind of say, "He's our bum. We cleaned him up. We made him somebody. Now, look at where we are today." And that is just exciting the things I can get done in the Congress. And I don't think today that we have enough fathers anchored to share, tragically, and a lot of those fathers that are there are to help out for their children, as committed as they are, the outgoing and the vibrations and the excitement of a Harlem community where everybody reached out for everybody -- I don't see that even today.

BOND: But even thinking about this experience you had in the white school where you become the leader of this group of white kids, the Black Knights, that seems to me like a prediction that you’re going to be a politician. That somebody who can take people different from himself and put them into a cohesive group and lead them -- that’s a natural politician.

RANGEL: Well, all we had in Harlem were gangs, so when I came here talking about gangs, this is the most exciting thing to happen to them. And so I became a natural leader because I was the only one that knew about gangs. And so everything that I knew in Harlem, I was able to bring to this Jewish community -- and I’m not saying their parents were excited about it, but I was. You know, I think that once you acquire the ability to get things done that you want to get done and persuade other people that you can, and you do it -- that’s the kind of leader I like to be.

BOND: Well, that seems to me that’s the kind of leader you are -- someone who convinces other people to do things you want done that they may not even want to do, but somehow or another you’re able to convince them that these are the things they ought to do. Now, where does that come from? How did you develop this ability?

RANGEL: Whatever works. Whatever works works.

BOND: I mean, does it go back to the high school or even beyond that, before that?

RANGEL: Oh, my mother said that when I went to kindergarten, she knew I was going to be somebody because I insisted on having a desk when they didn’t have a desk. But no -- I consider leaders like Nelson Mandela, a person that can be jailed for twenty-seven years and be tolerant enough to want to forgive the wardens -- those are leaders.

I think Martin Luther King, who loved his wife and children but was so compassionate about the cause that he would jeopardize his life and all of those lives. Fannie Lou Hamer — when I would be with her and with Percy Sutton and Paula Dwyer, these crazy white folks were bombing houses. They had a complete disregard for human life. And I will always reserve, in my mind, those people that, yes, can get people excited enough to do the right and the moral thing at the risk of their lives and have the ability to eloquently do it. And so, there’s no question that I can get things done politically. I’m excited about it, and success breeds success.

I was talking to a group of people in the State Department yesterday and I asked them were there any poker players in the group. Winning at poker -- when you’re winning, it excites you. And when you’re losing, you can almost predict you’re going to have a bad night. There’s very little turnaround and when you’ve been on a roll to succeed, there’s so many people that want to do what you want done because they want to be a part of that success. And the epitome of it is after you’ve spent thirty-seven years in the House of Representatives with four hundred and thirty-five people that are depending on each other to get legislation, but came there from four hundred and thirty-five roads so that you really are not dependent on them politically, it’s a political independence that is just absolutely remarkable. And then when you become Chairman, you have so many new friends.

Right now, we have jurisdiction over taxes, over trade, over Social Security, over Medicare, but when I go to the White House and meet with the Secretary of State, it’s for national security and education, to me, and getting away from poverty and making this country competitive and making certain that internationally we don’t have to depend on other countries to educate us are the things that Brown v. the Board of Education are about, except as Chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, this is what America has to be all about. We should not have to ask people to send us their educated in order to maintain our competitive edge, and a part of our trade policy now is education.

And poverty just isn’t a lot of pain. It’s costly. Poor folks are a threat to our national security. They don’t get health care. They don’t get education. They’re not productive. They’re inclined to get into trouble. They get sick. They’re in the hospital. They’re jails and do drugs -- so, hey, we’ve got to eliminate that if we’re going to maintain our international leadership.

BOND: But, still, I’m interested in your style. I saw something you had said about your colleagues in the House — Republicans — and how you didn’t want to necessarily get in a fight with somebody because you might want something from him later. Not that you didn’t want to have disagreements. You always have those but it was as if you’re saying, "This fellow over here, I may want something from him some day and so I need to maintain at least a decent relationship with him."

RANGEL: Nah. That’s a misinterpretation.

BOND: Okay.

RANGEL: I didn’t remember the last time I really truly — look you in the eye and tell you, I don't remember the last time I had a fight with anybody.

BOND: In your life?

RANGEL: No. As a kid —

BOND: As a kid.

RANGEL: Since I got — since I left Korea.

BOND: Okay.

RANGEL: Since I left Korea. As a matter of fact, my book is called And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since. And what is it all about? Here I am shot up, in Korea, by Chinese, think my life was over and say what a waste. What am I doing here dying? And we were overrun by Chinese, tens of thousands of them. The worst nightmare that you can imagine. White officers being helicoptered out and we’re being massacred. I could see them being trailed off by these Chinese, which I remind them of now in these international trade agreements. And I took a wild shot and asked Jesus to get me out of that and he’ll have no problem with Charlie Rangel forever. And since that time, I haven’t had a bad day. And so there’s no way for me — it could be misinterpreted that I’m getting along with people.

BOND: No, no, you get along with them.

RANGEL: But I just didn’t fight with people. I don’t — if my life depended on it and you were to say, "Well, since that time, you must’ve had one political enemy." And I would say, "Yeah, there was a guy named George Miller, but most of the time I was teasing him. I didn’t care about George Miller." No. If I had to make up an enemy, then I’d have to find out how much time would I have to spend getting rid of my enemy and so it — to me, life is so short and getting even is so costly if you want to do it the right away, and getting along in a respectful way is just so easy that one of my accomplishments as the Chairman of the Ways & Means Committee was working in a bipartisan way with the Republicans to establish, for the first time in over a decade, an international trade policy. But it wasn’t that we said, "What we can do to establish friendship and love and affection?" I made it clear that we were in the majority, he was in the minority, and I had the votes. We had not been tested as a party and there’s nothing I would’ve liked to accomplish more than to be able to get meaningful legislation out of our committee in a bipartisan way.

On the other hand, we could continue the food fight, the partisanship. He would not win, but they were coming up for election, too, and I didn’t think that President Bush’s coattails would be sufficient for them to not suffer another defeat. So we decided that it was good for us, it was good for the Committee and it was good for the country to work in a bipartisan way. I guess a lot of this had to do with the fact that I had not made enemies on the Committee with Republicans and because I really appreciate the institution in terms of debate and amendments and the Republican former Chairman had excluded that. In order to oppress Democrats, he had to keep the Republicans in check, so I opened to them a whole new opportunity to participate and whenever possible, to have bipartisanship, so a half a dozen bills that came out, to the surprise of even the President, have been bipartisan.

That was another point that I said that having the veto over me doesn’t really make me the most powerful man in the House of Representatives because I’m Chairman but having a bipartisan agreement coming out of the Committee, you don’t have to worry about any president.

BOND: Okay. Let me ask you a philosophical question. Do you see a difference, as you go about your business, between your vision, your philosophy and your style? Are these different things? Is there an interaction between the three of these — vision, philosophy and style? What’s your vision?

RANGEL: Vision is to make certain that when God calls me I will be able to say to her, "I did the best I could."

BOND: Okay. And what about your philosophy?

RANGEL: My philosophy is that with all of the different religions that we have in the world that are so complex so that people are prepared to die in what they believe, that I should be able to find something that I can negotiate through all of this so it doesn’t matter who’s taking the tickets up there, that I’m going to be all right, so I decided on Matthew where Jesus tells all of these people how they personally mistreated him when he was hungry and thirsty and in the hospital and jail and that they didn’t help him. And he told them that it wasn’t how they treated him, but they can go straight to hell because they didn’t treat the lesser of his brothers and sisters. And I have found that philosophically, since I really like to be treated well in life that if you can give someone a shot of respect, mutual respect, and to treat them well, then philosophically, it really truly works or at least it works for me.

BOND: And your style? What’s your style?

RANGEL: Just try to be nice to people and really, I have been told that so many people have said unkind things for me and I just can’t believe it, so not believing it makes it a lot easier to handle because too many people dislike people who dislike them and then that builds, but if you’re nice to people and they misunderstand it, it’s okay. You just got to keep moving along.

BOND: Has it had any effect on your life up to date, up to now -- the Brown decision? You left the Army. You went back to de facto segregated schools in Harlem. Then you go to college.

RANGEL: Oh, no, no, no.


RANGEL: No. You see, when I was a poor kid in Harlem in segregated schools, that was different. The difference between Rangel sixty years ago as a high school dropout at 132nd Street & Lenox Avenue and Rangel, the Chairman of a powerful committee, still at 135th & Lenox Avenue is the G.I. Bill and the G.I. Bill did more to shatter racism and the segregation for me. I went to New York University. I went to St. John’s University. And so the money and the tuition shattered any degree of racism in wanting me.

As a matter of fact, when they asked me which university I wanted to go after giving me a hard time at the Veterans Administration, I asked which one was the most expensive and when I got my scholarships, which I had many offers, I found out which one paid the most because some of them I couldn’t afford to take, so -- no, segregation was not a problem for me. As a matter of fact, I just attended the reunion of the graduation of the New York University including the School of Commerce, and it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t know anybody there because I was a subway student. I had a couple of jobs. You get on the subway. The classes are so big. So, my wife who went to Wilberforce and so many of my friends who enjoyed the historically black colleges, they probably got more of an education than I did but I was shooting for the degree and that’s what counted.

BOND: Now, one thing that seems to have typified your career is something we touched on earlier, and that is the ability to build coalitions of people, to put together people who might not have a — think they have a common interest but somehow or another you’ve been able to convince them that they do. How’s that come about?

RANGEL: It just makes sense, Julian. I mean, wasn’t that what you were all about when you were out there marching? If your skinny butt was just marching up and down the street, who would’ve cared what Julian Bond — when you announced you were running for president, if it was just you and someone that knew you in school, who would care? And so in order to make a difference, you’ve got to convince someone that not only you’re right, but you have the ability to try to make it work. And so I would love to try to think of something far more sophisticated, but to me, if I want to get a bill passed and it’s going to take two hundred and eighteen, I know what I have to do. And it’s exciting.

BOND: Yeah. It is. It was for me when I was in the Georgia legislature. It was exciting.

RANGEL: Of course.

BOND: But it was hard for me because some of the people I wanted to make up my majority were people whose political positions were so far removed from mine that under the normal course of things I might not even have spoken to them. But I had to. And it was hard for me to do it — I learned how to do it, but it was hard for me to do it. Now, what about you? There must be people in the House, in that four thirty-five, who are so far away from your own positions about so many things that you know you have nothing in common. How do you bridge that gap?

RANGEL: Don’t say that.

BOND: Or you think you have nothing in common.

RANGEL: I am telling you —

BOND: Or they think you have nothing in common.

RANGEL: That’s because once people stop talking with each other and made up their mind they have nothing in common, the easiest thing in the world — you know, in the Army sometimes the mean guys would say, you know, "What did you do to annoy Smith? Did you talk about his girlfriend, his wife, his mother?" I said, "Who’s Smith?" [They] said, "Well, Smith sure has been talking about you," and before you know it, Smith and Jones are fighting each other and they don’t even know each other because of what people said, but if someone says, "Smith thinks the world of you," and even if you’ve got the wrong guy, you said, you know, "Smith is a pretty decent guy."

I am convinced if you have enough time and patience, you’ve got to have something in common. And it’s amazed me to see how Southerners, white and black especially in Georgia, especially in Atlanta, have so much more in common than all the white folks and black folks I know in New York City because we don’t say the things that used to be said in the terrible anti-civil rights days, but my God, talk about what’s in common, the things I never knew in Harlem — that white folks ate grits and scrapple and collard greens. I just thought in Harlem we did it. And then I never saw any white Southerners — I don’t even remember until I went into the Army. What would they be doing in New York and what would they be doing in Harlem? And so your experience and ability to bring them along was talking about their cultures and I’m convinced that —

Well, there was a guy named Clay Shaw. He was a pretty conservative Republican.

BOND: From Florida?

RANGEL: From Florida, and he got sick. I sent him a note. We were on the same committee and we sat down next to each — when he came back, he came to thank me and we were talking about kids and grandkids, but a new Democratic white member, as soon as Clay went to sit on the other side, sat next to me and asked, "Now what was that all about?" Forgetting that I’ve known the guy for over thirty years! So, you can’t say just because — especially politicians who sometimes takes his constituent’s view as Lyndon Johnson who I think was the greatest president that black folks ever had because he forfeited a constituent position for a national position in terms of civil rights and voters’ rights. And I would’ve been the last one in the world to believe that he would have anything in common — when I heard him at Howard say, "We should overcome," I just couldn’t believe because I’d made up my mind how he looked, how he sounded, how his voting record was. So my point is, if you have the patience and the ability to work it out, as you well know as a legislator, the whole political thing is negotiating compromises so at the end of the day you say you’ve won, you can’t do that unless you find some middle ground and then you have to concentrate — sounds like I’m trying to save a marriage, doesn’t it? You have to concentrate —

BOND: Well, maybe it’s like that. Maybe it’s like that, yeah.

RANGEL: You have to really find out what have you got going for you with this issue and this person, and if you spend enough time about it to shatter the lack of patience or the bias, then for the first time you might be able to look more clearly. I mean, me working on education and trade on the Ways & Means Committee, I don’t care how mean and racist someone is, I can tell you, you don’t take care of these black kids, they won’t even be able to pick up a rifle to go into the Army. And certainly if you start looking for people, you know, in World War II, we got a lot of breaks because there was a shortage of women and blacks and whatnot, and our country is shrinking in terms of our ability. I don’t see how we can afford to keep up the walls of racism in this country when we’re going to have to be working together to economically, at least, be competitive with other countries.

BOND: Let me ask you something about making leaders. People think you make leaders in one of three ways. Number one, great people cause great events. Number two, movements create leaders. Or number three, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for their times. Does one of these fit you?

RANGEL: Yeah, the last one — events create leaders.

BOND: Unpredictable events?

RANGEL: Yeah. The Voting Rights Act. The fact that I came to Congress succeeding the late and great Adam Clayton Powell, who was bigger than life and so he overshadowed the other eight African Americans. The fact that under the leadership of Charlie Diggs, the thirteen of us thought it was time for us to come together. The expansion of the Voting Rights Act where the thirteen became twenty-six and thirty-six and today, we have forty-three African Americans. The fact that Hispanics have over twenty that’s in the Congress. The fact that when the Democratic Party walks out, that you know that we have the votes. The fact that I put in over thirty years and that my elevation to the chairmanship of the committee, which I’ve served on for over twenty years, goes unchallenged. All of these things are the time in which we live.

BOND: And you’re saying that all these things were unpredictable.

RANGEL: Unpredictable?

BOND: You couldn’t predict that these things would happen. But what about great people causing great events?

RANGEL: Who’s great? Are you born great?

BOND: Well — no, you’re not born great but you think about Martin Luther King, who’s chosen to lead that movement in Montgomery. Nobody knew him or heard — he was new in town, but somehow or another he rose to the occasion which I don’t think anybody knew what the occasion was going to be, but he rose to it and he led it and he guided it to victory, so here was a great leader creating — of course, it’s an unforeseen event. You couldn’t have known Rosa Parks was going to sit down. But somehow or another, it strikes me this is also a way leaders are created, that great leaders can create movements.

RANGEL: Well, there are great events that call for challenges, but if you’re not a great leader, you won’t even know. You wouldn’t even know the event was taking place. I marched from Selma to Montgomery. I cursed every step of the way. I had no clue how I got sucked up in that with my bad feet. I did not appreciate who Martin Luther King was or what you guys were doing down there. I wanted to be supportive, not a great leader. But as a result of that march and so many other things that occurred, and recognizing even with the greatness of Martin Luther King, how many great leaders died and was lynched and was killed because of the circumstances that Martin found himself in with Rosa Parks, but I think someone that’s a leader and no one knows how — what they did or what she did, God, there has to be a special place for those people just because they weren’t recorded in the papers or in television as to what they did. And the story I’m telling you is not the story I’m going to tell my grandkids about that march.


RANGEL: But there’s no question of the relationship between that Selma march, Lyndon Johnson — he knew that we were going to lose the white Democrats in the South. He made this historic decision and as a result of the explosion of opportunity on the local level and the state level and in the Congress, we got six Charlie Rangels chairing six different committees, a dozen subcommittees, and those are the circumstances that we find ourselves in because of people like Martin Luther King.

I mean, if I’m included in the number of national leaders and then you come and say, "Of course, you know you’re putting your life on the line." I’m going to say, "Julian, can we talk, because I’m committed, but — " Even when I did put my life on the line, those North Koreans didn’t do anything to me. Neither did the Chinese so there may be some questions as to what the heck I was doing there in the first place. But I think those like you and John Lewis, Andrew Young, and your families never knew that you were coming home at night — there’s no substitute for that type of courage, especially when you didn’t know you were going to win and you didn’t know how many other people cared. And it was that that turned the country around because the same way our country’s rejected the Jews that were trying to escape from Germany during the war, or now reject the Haitians that are trying to get here, they knew what white folks were doing in the South. And when I say they, I’m talking about cardinals and bishops and rabbis and imams, and when my crazy uncle would listen to the Garveyites and I thought he was crazy because how could all of these things be happening and all of New York and all of the country be just so insensitive to murders by white folks where they never brought to justice but as the concerns built up and people like you said you were ready to risk your lives and the televisions came and the dogs came and the bombs came and circumstances came, and then people said, "Enough is enough," and turned it around. But it was circumstances because people like you and Martin and Andrew and John had no idea — no idea — that this was going to happen, so what does that mean to me?

It meant that you were prepared to lose your life when the whole mission [were] probably history being recognized would probably lose as so many before you did without television. So there’s a special place that I have for people like you because I just play the hand that’s dealt me.

BOND: Well, you’ve played it very well. You played it very well.

RANGEL: Well, you can’t just throw away a bad hand and think you got to win.

BOND: Let me talk to you about — do you think your legitimacy as a leader, and you don’t deny you have legitimacy as a leader because you know you do, I know you do, we all know you do —

RANGEL: When you’re a chairman, no one’s going to challenge you.

BOND: Yeah. But I think you have legitimacy in other ways separate and apart from the chairmanship by the things you’ve done in life before you became chairman, but anyway, is that grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?


BOND: Both these things?

RANGEL: Of course. There’re so many people that just want relief. They want to aspire to do better, and they see you and they hope and trust that you can make their lives easier and if not them, then certainly their children. You can’t let those people down. And so you have to find out what is it going to take to improve education, to improve health care, to get affordable housing and to somehow make certain that it’s not a minority issue. I have been able not to prove to the private sector or to Republicans that these things are important because it’s the right, humane thing to do, but if they love this country, they can’t afford not to do it and so it’s a combination of trying to do not only in this country but all over the world.

One of the biggest thing we’ve got in the trade agreement is respecting the right of other people not to use slave labor, not to use child labor, to be able to organize. To me, it’s the right thing to do but it was a leadership thing to convince the Republicans that it was something they had to do to have what? A bipartisan trade policy, not a Republican, not a Democrat, so I don’t think there’s easy answers to your questions, but I think both are very important.

BOND: But you said something that leads to the next question. I want to ask you about race consciousness. How does race consciousness affect your life? Are you a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or are these the same thing? I’m guessing you’ll say they’re the same thing.

RANGEL: They’re the same thing, but what do you mean by advancing? It doesn’t do well [when] four hundred and thirty-five people in the House to be talking about how racist poverty is and lack of health care and opportunity. It does a hell of a lot better to talk about not providing the resources and the access to these resources make for a weaker country. Now, I know what I’m talking about because I see who’s poor so whether you’re Hispanic or black, I’m very conscious of it. And also, a lot of people who come in to talk about taxes, trade, and other issues, they immediately talk about education with me and I’m certain that my color has a lot to do with the way people approach me. The same way I would assume with other people from different cultures that before you have the meeting you make certain that you’ve built up an understanding of mutual respect.

BOND: Now, do you have a different style when you’re dealing with a group that’s all black, all white or predominantly white or mixed? Are you different in these circumstances?

RANGEL: I don’t see how. Like you, I’ve had my share of television, and I think a lot of people would know if you’re answering questions or your manners — as a matter of fact, when I first came down to Washington, a group of Howard students came in and gave me hell for defeating Adam Clayton Powell but they were doing it in such a street way that I had to kick them out of the damn office and I said, "I want to let you know that this is an office that you’re going to have to respect. If I thought for one minute that you could talk the street with me, you know, I know where you’re coming from and I would understand it, but if you’re going to a university and dealing with a member of Congress, you better learn how to talk to the congressman before you give me a rap because the man’s going to throw your ass in jail." And I worked with this group and it turned out to be a wonderful thing. They were just trying to show how militant they were, but I was saying how important it is for our kids to be able to know the rap, to talk the street and have this special relationship with each other but never forget that you’re not in charge and you have to make certain that you speak differently in terms of trying to relate to other people and I have enjoyed seeing as you have, too, people who talk with you in a very colloquial way —

BOND: Yes.

RANGEL: — but like many ministers and politicians, when they’re on, their language becomes a lot more formal, but the thoughts I think are more important than the delivery. But, no, I’m going through a problem now that for 38 years I have not had any serious political challenge and from Harlem, as a matter of fact, Adam and I probably, you know, we served collectively for sixty-two years. He was there in ’45 for twenty-six years and I’ve been there for the thirty-six years, thirty-seven years, and when you have a congressional district like a neighborhood, I’ve spent all my time in the streets and the churches and doing things, and now that I’m the chairman, I got to find some kind of way that I can spend the time that it’s going to take to pass legislation with the half a dozen subcommittees but I don’t think that's — that could not possibly change anything and thank God my community feels that that’s their chairmanship and they give me a break.

BOND: Well, good for them.

BOND: Now, from time to time, you’ve referenced God and you mentioned attending the Catholic church. What’s your religion mean to you?

RANGEL: Well, I was on the way to Cuba with Cardinal [John] O’Connor. I was the only lay person on the plane, but they knew I could get them an appointment with Castro, with Fidel Castro. It was the same trip that the Pope had so he came to the back of the plane and complimented me for the work that I do for the poor but said he was very disappointed that I’d forgotten my catechism and the real tenets of the church and that he was willing, because he admired the other work I was doing, to work with me to have a better understandings of the work of Jesus Christ. And I just thought that he should know that I’d been around the world so many times and had been exposed to so many religious beliefs and I didn’t know it would annoy him when I said, "I don’t want to take any chances up there. You know, they may not be taking Catholic tickets." And I certainly didn’t want a whole lot of priests helping me out when I was negotiating and I mean that with all of my heart. There’s no way in the world for me to believe that God would take the time to make all these wonderful people with all these different philosophical beliefs and that only one block is going to get in, so that’s why I spoke directly to Jesus when I was in trouble because I did speak in English and in Latin, however, but whatever happened, it worked well.

BOND: One last question — how can we foster leadership in the future? How can we make sure that we have the kind of leadership required in years yet to come?

RANGEL: We have to find ways to come together. The church has to do it. The social groups have to do it. The politicians have to do it to remind ourselves in no uncertain way that whether you’re the chairman of the board, the Chairman of Ways & Means, no matter what you do in this country, that race is a negative factor and that the only way that you can make a contribution to yourself, your family, and the community is to make certain that other communities really respect you and the only way that you can get this respect is by being organized and being able to help somebody or to hurt somebody or to be at that table and deal in this thing with mutual respect.

I don’t — I know I will not see the day that the color is going to be ignored because it’s the right thing to do. True, people who get to know each other individually can easily do it and that’s why I’m a big supporter of the Foreign Service because these people, they go overseas and they forget their color and start dealing with hearts and minds and how to improve the world, but I think we have to always constantly remind ourselves that this country’s not going to let us forget our color. We shouldn’t want to forget our color and I think that Marcus Garvey and others that reminded us that, hey, it’s a beautiful color and we’ve just got to get other people to appreciate it and I think it’ll work out. In my lifetime, I doubt it.

BOND: Garvey said, "You know, the world has made being black a crime. I intend to make it a virtue." And you make it a virtue. Thank you, Charlie Rangel.

RANGEL: It’s exciting. Thank you, Julian.

BOND: We appreciate it.