Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Family Influences

BOND: You said earlier on that you could read at age 5. How’d that happen? It had to be your parents --

BUTTS: Well, it was my parents. My mother was a student at Savannah State. Both of them valued education. Now, my father did not go to college, but it was my grandmother who sent me to that little schoolhouse and I don’t know the woman’s name and she’s looking over the balconies of glory, forgive me, but she taught us how to spell, how to read, and how to write, and how to use numbers in that one-room house, and we didn’t know any better but to learn and were frightened out of our minds if we didn’t learn because when we got home, if we didn’t do what we were supposed to do, they’d go get a switch.

BOND: Tell us more about your parents.

BUTTS: My parents are wonderful people. They’re still alive. They’ve been married 61 years. They’re the salt of the earth, light of the world kind of folk. Deeply faithful. Father’s a deacon in the church, mother’s a deaconess. Hard workers and great providers. My father is my greatest inspiration, along with my mother. I watched him work every day of his life. We never were hungry and cold. We lived in the Lillian Wald Projects, government housing, and they worked hard, saved enough money to buy their first home. I saw them work with their hands to put that home in order and we had a wonderful family life and then I saw them continue to save, be frugal, while encouraging me to go to school. My mother sat with me and did homework. I never will forget when the new math came out. She looked at it. She said, “Son, I don’t know what this is but I’ll tell you what I know and then you figure it out,” and what she told me was good enough.

And they bought another home. My father always believed in investment property, so he had enough sense to build a home, a two-family home, and one took care of the other, and never said an unkind word about anybody that I know of. Never said — never heard a racial epithet come from his mouth. Now, I did hear them say something once when they were watching the Ku Klux Klan on television. I did hear them discuss the murder of Emmett Till. They were outraged but they never said, “Hate white people,” you know, they just said this is terrible, this is horrible what happens, and would take me to task when they would hear me say something that was a little derogatory of anybody else. He’s a wonderful — that’s got to be my greatest blessing that I had good parents. I have good parents, and today, you know, if my father — he does not know — he knows that I’ve left town, but he does not know that I’m sitting with you. If he knows — when he finds out that I was with Julian Bond, that’s going to just — I mean, you know, you’re one of the heroes. Your name is a household name. People know who you are.

I remember once I was at WNET-13 in New York. I was very young in ministry and I had the occasion of meeting Lena Horne and being in close contact with her and I put my arm around her to take a picture and they gave me the picture. They sent it to me in the mail and I showed it to my father and all. He said, “Oh, my God, look at this,” because Lena Horne was, you know —

BOND: Oh, yes.