Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Influences: Family, Church and the Boy Scouts

BOND: Who are the people who've been significant in helping you develop your talents and your skills? Who're the people who've made a difference to you over the years?

BISHOP: Well, there've been so many people who have impacted my life. Obviously, my parents, my mother and my father who were both wonderful people, both Christian, both tried to instill within me respect for humankind regardless of the height or the lowness of stature in terms of society.

Then, of course, the people in my church. I had a Sunday School teacher who I think I must've been seven or eight when I got into a Sunday School class but it was around the time of the Emmett Till case and, of course, she talked to us about racial matters and how to stay out of trouble and not to look the wrong way at a white woman and never get in a situation where you could be charged with rape, but she also was a person who believed in me and all of us, but she put me forward to do public speaking. I was the spokesperson, I was the youth speaker in any program that she had anything to do with and, of course, she had a city-wide program when I was probably about 10 or 11 and there was a child prodigy by the name of George Mason Miller, Jr., who was from Mooresville, North Carolina, but he was a tiny kid, but a prodigy in that he memorized all of the countries in the United Nations and all of the flags and he would come and travel around doing lectures for a fee and, of course, it was my designation to introduce him when he came to Mobile and we had the big speech at the ILA Hall which was the only place that blacks could gather in a large auditorium at that time, other than a school, and, of course, I practiced for days with a tape recorder my introduction of Miller and so it was quite a learning experience in terms of public speaking and, of course, I guess that impacted me and, of course, Mrs. Reese who was the—she was a spinster school principal, Sunday School teacher, was influential in that.

Of course, I was a Boy Scout and there were Scout leaders who impacted me—Mr. A.J. Dickerson, who was the Scout executive who was a deacon at my church. Mr. Somerfield Hall, who was an elderly man who had been in one of FDR's CC camps, had been in the Army, but who was just a really inspiring Scout leader. My Scout Master, Mr. Donnie McCann, who had no boys of his own, but the boys in Troop 201, which was the first black Boy Scout troop in Mobile, Alabama. All of the white troops went from 1 up to 199 -- I'm sorry, to 200 -- and then the black troops started at number 201 and went up from there, so I was fortunate to be a Boy Scout. That impacted me tremendously with the principles, the Scout Oath, the Scout Law — on my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, morally straight. Then the points of the Scout Law — a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, thrifty, cheerful, reverent, brave. All of those things are really the basis of character building and, of course, that shaped my life tremendously.

The other thing in the Boy Scouts was a group called the Order of the Arrow. It was a brotherhood of honor campers and it was sort of like the elite, but it was really a brotherhood of cheerful service and it taught service and self-sacrifice and I think that instilled in me, having participated in that for many years and been a part of the ceremonial team and reciting the ritual of those principles, those noble principles of service I think were instilled into me and so when I became a lawyer and, of course, there was a local lawyer, Vernon Crawford, in Mobile who happened to have been a friend of the family.

I watched Perry Mason every day and I said, well, maybe I'd like to be a lawyer. He came to career day at school when I was in elementary school. I talked with him and said, "What does it take to be a lawyer?" He said, "Well, you've got to finish high school, you gotta make good grades, gotta get to college, gotta finish college, gotta take the LSAT, then you gotta go to law school, you gotta pass the bar examination and then you can become a lawyer," so he sort of laid out the steps and, of course, as a Boy Scout, we had gone through the ranks of Scouting and, of course, I was able to achieve the rank of Eagle, one step at a time and so when he laid out those steps, in my mind, I thought these are the things I have to go through to become a lawyer.

Fast forward — I get to Morehouse. Was impressed tremendously by Dr. [Benjamin] Mays. As a child, 10 years old, Dr. Mays comes to spend the night in my home for three nights. There were no public accommodations. He was invited to speak by the Mobile County Teachers Association. There was no hotel for him to stay, so he stayed in the home of a Morehouse man, my father. I was a latchkey child so he was there in the afternoon when I got home so I got to spend some quality time with Dr. Mays for two afternoons before he left. I was very, very, very impressed and, of course, decided at that point that Morehouse may be where I wanted to go and, of course, my father etched that when he drove through Atlanta and stopped at the campus, took me on the campus with him and he went into Danforth Chapel, sat down at the piano and started playing "Dear Old Morehouse" and looking sentimental. Then he walked over to John Hope's grave and he bowed his head very sentimentally.

Then he walked up to Graves Hall and looked up and said, "I used to live in that room right there," and he walked over to Robert Hall and said, "I used to live in that room and so and so was my roommate," and he looked — I said, "This must be some place to have my strong father become this sentimental, and maybe I want to come here."

BOND: So you didn't have any choice?

BISHOP: Well, I guess I didn't. I had a choice and he did not obviously exert any influence that I was aware of because I guess he figured I'd do the opposite, but I was offered a four-year all-expense-paid scholarship to three or four other HBCUs. I was offered a one-year tuition-only scholarship to Morehouse. I chose to go to Morehouse. My father didn't object.

BOND: I'm sure he didn't, I'm sure he didn't.