Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Innate Leadership Tendency: Reacting to Injustice

BOND: Now, looking back on your education, anybody who knows you or knows of you would consider you a leader. What in your education prepared you to be a leader? Not prepared you to be a scholar, but prepared you to be a leader or maybe they’re the same thing.

BERRY: I don’t know. I’ve been asked that question and I’ve thought about it. I’m not sure I am a leader.

BOND: Take it for granted that— Even just for the purposes of this that you are a leader.

BERRY: Well, we can pretend hypothetically because I’m not the head of an organization.

BOND: You don’t have to be to be a leader.

BERRY: Or whatever.

BOND: You have to be someone that people pay attention to.

BERRY: Ahh, okay.

BOND: And listens to and—

BERRY: All right. For this definition then of leader, I thought very often when people say to me why do you do the things you do, the activist kinds of things that I do and to some extent, I attribute it to my background and experiences as a child growing up.

BOND: And they were?

BERRY: Being poor and being, you know, the sort of hard-scrabble existence but also the example of my relatives and my cousins and everybody striving and some of the bad things that happened to people, the racist things that happened to people and to me as I was growing up as a child and responding to those and feeling hurt by them, but you never can know really what separates one person from another because, you know, I’ve got cousins and they’re not activists, so— And my brothers, you know, so—

BOND: So the question is why were you the reactor and they not? What did distinguish you from your cousins?

BERRY: For the whole of my life, whenever anyone did anything that I thought was unfair or unjust, I would respond to them and object without ever thinking about how much it would cost or what would they do or— It never entered my mind. I would— You know, sometimes the consequences were severe, but if I thought it was unfair or if I thought it was unjust, I would have to tell them.

BOND: But where did this notion in you of right and wrong, where’d this come from? When did you say to yourself, gee, that’s not fair what’s happening over there? How did you determine that? What does that rest on? How’d you know this thing was unfair?

BERRY: I have no idea. I don’t know whether it’s religion or whether it’s taught ethics or whether some sense or what, but I do have this very deep inner core which tells me that if something’s wrong, don’t tolerate it, no matter what it is and when things are wrong— And I could be wrong. Perhaps what I’m seeing is unfair is really fair, but I always go by my own instincts and if I see people are being hurt and I feel that they haven’t done anything to deserve whatever is happening to them or if I see people who no one else is helping them, or people who take advantage of other people, or any situation where I think people have gotten ahead by advantage when it’s not the right thing for people who’re left behind, I just react to it and I don’t give a second thought to whether I should be doing it or not.

BOND: So to you, are you saying this is a function of nature, of your own personality rather than some nurturing you received from school or family or church?

BERRY: It may be something— I think it’s a combination. Part of it may be what I was taught by people like Minerva Hawkins who spent a lot of time teaching me about things. Part of what I saw in my own family that happened with people, unfair things that happened to relatives and so on and partly things that happened to me that I didn’t think were fair.

BOND: Let me interrupt you. It’s one thing to decide that something that you’ve seen is unfair. I think lots of people do that or something that happened to you is unfair, but it’s another thing to take the next step and say, well, I’m going to do or say or argue. I’m going to do something about it, so that’s I guess what the question is.

BERRY: Ahh— Well, I happen to think— I mean, I haven’t thought much about this, but knowing that that happens to almost everybody at some time and some people respond and others don’t, then it must be something where in your experiences you’re different or it’s innate, one or the other. It’s a personality characteristic.

BOND: What is it with you?

BERRY: I have no idea. I wish I didn’t, so perhaps it is innate because often I wish I could just be silent when something happens and say, well, just let it pass, let it go, don’t do anything, don’t strategize and I don’t mean that I do it in any manner where I walk up in somebody’s face and permit them to punch me in the nose. That’s not the point. The point is to try to figure out strategically how to do something about whatever has occurred and not to let it go until I figure out something.

BOND: Did you ever have the feeling that if you let it go, nobody will do anything about it?

BERRY: Yes, I said that one time that the time you really need to do something is when nobody else will do anything and I believe that.