Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Responsibilities of Black Leaders

BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen and he writes about a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender: “Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Is there a danger of divisiveness when we focus on black leadership?

BUTTS: No, I think the reality is what it is. I mean, if you are an African American, you’re providing leadership in the African American community, one could rightly say that you are a black leader. Now, you can transcend race, as I said before, in your leadership in the African American community. For example, a person who ascends to become president of the United States, a John F. Kennedy, he wasn’t a leader in the black community. He was a leader in a predominantly white community. They just didn’t characterize it that way. Then when he becomes president, he becomes president of all the people. You know, Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, the state Senate, and the United States Senate primarily by — well, the United States Senate, but the state Senate by black people, you know, but then when you get to that lofty position, you become responsible for all people, so I don’t —

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a leader in the Jewish community. Now, they didn’t call him a Jewish leader. It just so happened that race in America defines us as black leaders, but there’re Jewish leaders, there’re Catholic leaders. I mean, Cardinal [Edward] Egan in New York, he’s a leader of the Catholic community. You say he’s a Catholic leader, but he’s responsible for the whole archdiocese and everybody under him. I think it’s the same thing with black people so, yeah, I speak to black people.

Jesus Himself said, “I have come to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Jesus was defined by a narrow strip of land, parochial focus, but He’s the savior of the world, from my perspective, and so therefore was He a Jewish leader? Of course He was, but then His gospel embraces everybody, so you can call me a black leader if you want, but there’re a lot of white people who listen to what we have to say.

BOND: Do you think that black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans or is there a point where that obligation can end and a black leader can pursue his or her own professional opportunities?

BUTTS: I can’t answer it. We have an obligation to serve African people, continually always. There is no point at which I can walk away and say and divorce myself, rather, from who I am as a black man. There is no point that I can do that. In my service to African people, I may rise to the point where all people begin to hear what I say and say, ahhh, you know, that doctor can heal everybody. That preacher can preach to everybody. I know he’s a black man but he’s speaking to me, just like I can go to hear a white preacher and say, yeah, that’s right, amen, brother. But his congregation is predominantly white. It just so happens in a racist America we get labeled that way, but I’m not ashamed of that, you know.

And in terms of the church, we’re not the black church because we want to be. We’re the black church because we’ve had to be. Nobody else would take us, so in a real sense, yeah, I’m committed to us and I really look askance at those men and women who say at some point they have no more of an obligation to black people. You’ve lost your mind. And any black person who has said that has cut him or herself off from their base and a cut flower, while it may look good, will not last.