Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Being “Faithful to the Task”

BOND: A little while ago you were quoted as saying that you’re not called to be popular, but that your calling is to be faithful to the struggle. Does that characterize your role as the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church as well as your role as a college president? Are the issues, the struggle — is the struggle the same in the same large sense that both these roles are when you’re building a development corporation, does that require — is that a different struggle or does it require the same characters from you?

BUTTS: I have said that I’m not called to be popular. I’m not called to be successful and I’m not even called — but I am called to be faithful.

BOND: Faithful, that's right.

BUTTS: And that faithfulness is seen in my calling to whatever task my hands have been assigned and I don’t separate the pastorate from the college presidency, except, you know, in those practical senses. The Apostle Paul says, hey, you guys are getting ready to arrest me, I’m a Roman citizen, I appeal to Caesar. I’m not, you know, I'm not trying to impose my faith on the college, but I hope that my position as a minister and my own moral position as a human being has some influence.

Both the college presidency and the pastorate are callings and the struggle for me is to be — is to provide — all right — here we go — the kind of leadership that helps people to move forward, so if I’m building the development — if I’m working on building housing for working families, that empowers the working family. That provides them with some of the life, some of the pursuit of happiness, and on here, if I am trying to get Julian Bond to become a faculty member at the State University of New York because I think that he imparts wisdom and experience and intellectual acuity to the students, it’s the same thing. I’m helping those young men and women grow by exposing them to the best.

If I’m building dormitories, particularly at a public college, I’m empowering poor people who can’t afford to pay $20,000 a semester for tuition, and if I were asked to be the president of a school that was very expensive, I might have second thoughts, because one of the interesting and compelling things about the public university is that it is accessible, that the people I’m called to serve can get there, so $40,000 a year as opposed to $17,000 a year. So, I’m called to be faithful to that.

Now, my name may never go in lights, but we’ve built five new dormitories. We’ve brought graduate programs, you know, we got State University on Long Island and you may not get a whole lot of accolades for it, but, so — I’m called to be faithful to that task, but I’m also called to be faithful to a larger struggle and that is the struggle of African people. I’m not against anybody else, but there’s a collective unconscious that continues to speak to me. Now, it is informed by Dr. Mays. Dr. Proctor. “Boy, do your best. Do your best. Make us proud. Run the race with dignity. You’re going to run into racism. You’re going to stumble and fall. You’ve got your own moral failures to deal with, but hold up the banner. Don’t let us down.”

My mother and father are still living. I can’t let them down, and that’s what informs me. That drives me. I’m not supposed to, you know, sit down, servant. I can’t sit down. I hear those, you know, sometimes I feel discouraged. Dr. King — “I think my words are in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.” That’s who I am. I can’t help it. I don’t know what it is. I can’t help it and I’m embarrassed when I make a mistake, when I say something that’s out of line, but I try to correct it and get back on track.