Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: This is a great segue to the next subject and it’s about race consciousness and you mentioned and have mentioned throughout this interview people of African descent and what responsibility you feel to them and responsibilities you feel they must undertake. How does race consciousness affect the work that you do?

BUTTS: Pretty profoundly. I have been called to, to use a line from Jesus and paraphrase, I have been called to the lost sheep of the house of African people or black people, African Americans, however you want to categorize them. I came up out of the womb. Now, I’m familiar and I love everybody, but I’ve got to serve these, my people, and if I’m in leadership, it’s because they put me there. They said there’s something about you that’s worthwhile, you know. You’re intelligent. You can read. You can write. You can think. You can lead, so whether they put me there as a result of being pastor of Abyssinian, chairman of a hospital in Harlem, chairman of the Development Corporation, I chair so many boards I don’t know whether I’m coming or going sometimes, but I’m there because the people put me there and they keep me there.

Now, I always refer to my history. Everything that has been done, particularly in America, to advance the cause of people of African descent has always helped all Americans. It has always. Martin King and the civil rights movement, that benefited all of America. Adam Powell’s legislation, that benefited all of America, and so while I worked with people across racial lines and while I try to improve the relationship between the races every opportunity I get, I am still dedicated to making sure that people of African descent, not only in America but across the world, are treated with great dignity and respect and not exploited. That’s — I mean, I can’t run from that. I look in the mirror and I can’t run from that.

BOND: Do you think there’s such a thing as a race-transcending leader? People, for example, have said that about Barack Obama, but I don’t think he’s finding that to be true.

BUTTS: No. I do think that there’s such a thing as a race transcending leader but I think that that comes as a result of that person’s dedication to the cause, even of African people. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a race-transcending leader, but his service was to black people. It’s clear. And then as he began to speak and think and grow, he could not help but connect with the consciousness of all men and women.