Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Foundational Experiences

BOND: A few minutes ago you were talking about your activities at Morehouse and going to Orangeburg for the massacre and being involved in Horace Tate’s Senate campaign, these kinds of activities, and you’re playing a leadership role in these activities. Now, when did you begin to think of yourself and maybe not consciously saying I am a leader but at some point, you’ve got to say, when I do things, people follow me. Do you remember when this happened to you?


BOND: It had to happen to you at some point.

BUTTS: I don’t — I heard a fellow jump up in a meeting once and he says, “I am a leader.” I was so turned off by it I didn’t know what to do. I never really paid much attention —

BOND: Well, I don’t mean to say that you would say this in an egocentric way or pat yourself on the back in some way, but I would guess there’s some point in your life at which you said when I say let’s take this approach, other people say, yes, that’s a good approach, let’s follow what Butts has to say. There’s got to be at some point, even in your younger life in school activities and college activities, when you rise to the top.

BUTTS: The only time I heard something like that was one of my — a girlfriend of mine many years ago said — she invited all of her friends to come to her house because there was a big party going on, and all of her girlfriends, and she said — she invited me, so I went by the house and they were all there and one of them said, “Where’re you going, Calvin?” I said, “Well, I’m going to so-and-so’s party,” and she said, “Whoa.” She asked her mom, she said, “Mommy, can we go?” She saw me. She says, “Yeah, yeah, you can go.” So we walked down. I said, “Well, if you were all going to the party, why did you divert me over here? I could’ve gone straight to the party.” She said, “Because if you come and my mother saw you and she knew you were going to the party, she would let all of us go.”

BOND: I see. Is that your first recognition that people would follow you?

BUTTS: I don’t know. It was funny to me. I guess I never paid that much attention to it. It is that you do what you think is right and you try to convince other people, but you can’t lead where you won’t follow. And I have a stronger leader, you know. I guess, and I say this with all seriousness — I’m led by the Holy Spirit and it’ll get you in trouble and it might cost you your life as we know, from some others who are much more — who were real leaders, but I’ve never taken time to calculate that. I’ve just never thought about it.

BOND: But what about leadership roles in high school? You had some.

BUTTS: I was president. In high school, I was president of the senior class.

BOND: Isn’t that a leadership position?

BUTTS: Yeah, it is. It is. It is.

BOND: And they didn’t just give it to you. You had to get it.

BUTTS: Well, I had to get it. One of the students passed me in the hallway and said, “Calvin, why don’t you run for senior class president?” I said, “Oh, come on.” I said, “Okay.” I didn’t campaign but I won.

BOND: Well, why’d you get it? Was it some magic that you won?

BUTTS: No. I just — no. I usually — when I say I’m going to do something or I give my word, I try to keep it, and I guess most of the students understood that and you know, I had excelled as a student, except for chemistry, and I was — I guess I had a certain level of popularity and it’s not bad being in the top spot either. You get some privileges. I’ll tell you a funny story. There was a local television dance show, kind of like Dick Clark but it was local, you know, American Bandstand-type show and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles were going to be on it, so they were looking for high school students to come on and be on the floor dancing like Soul Train. So we had a dance-off and I was part of the dance-off and I said, “No, the president should dance, too.” But I lost, but because I was the president, I still got to go, so, you know, those privileges.