Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Violence in the 1960s

BOND: How do you balance those things?

CANADA: Because we said we’re going to smash through every door they’ll let us smash without killing us. That was it. How far could you go? You’ll never get the president. That one, they’ll kill you. So leave that one alone, but could you maybe run a Fortune 500 company? Maybe. We thought that was getting a little dicey, but maybe. Could you be the president of a university that wasn’t all African American? No. But if you were smart enough, maybe. Work for a major law firm? Maybe. So, we thought — we didn’t know how far. I thought maybe my children, right, could continue to push this and then maybe we could get something like an African American president or something, but we never thought it would happen for us, so we just thought we’ve got to open as many of these doors as wide as possible so that we kind of advanced the cause another couple of steps and all of that I think was from —

This was a time and I don’t think anyone’s done really good writing about this time. You had the Black Panthers. You had folks actually talking about armed revolution in the country. You had the Nation of Islam, so you had all of this agitation going on where some people were saying let’s get guns and take it and other people saying, no, it has to be non-violent and there was this huge debate that involved both African Americans and whites. You know, it’s one of those things — no one really understands about the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers is sort of a relic — oh, I remember that group, and I remember we thought, no, we’re not messing with those guys. They’re radical and they’re out there so there was all of this debate right now about how we could change America and how far you could go before you crossed this sort of danger threshold and that really influenced my life very early on and some of us felt that if we did not push that envelope, we would actually be letting our race down.

BOND: Let me take you back a little bit to the time when you realized and you’ve said that there were monsters in the world, when a young kid Malcolm was shot down. Tell us about that. What did that do to you?

CANADA: Yeah. Well, you know, growing up in the south Bronx, we really — we knew we were poor so that was fine and we knew it was tough and that was fine, but we really did not know that there was evil lurking around us. There was a certain inner sense about growing up in a city and when they killed Malcolm, this young boy who was really poorer than the rest of us and it was over nothing, and I remember my youngest brother Reuben was there. They were rolling a tire. We just made games out of anything. We’d find some piece of junk and we’d use it and play with it and a guy opened up his window and just yelled out the window, “Hey, you guys, cut out all those noise.” And they laughed. Didn’t pay him no mind, until nine o'clock, ten o'clock. And they kept playing. The guy came downstairs with a handgun and just shot and killed Malcolm, just right there in the street in front of everybody and after it happened — you know, if we had been doing something really terrible, right, if we had been breaking people’s windows, you could put it into sort of a Gestalt that made sense. No, you can’t go this far, but this just said, boy, something could just happen that could change your life instantly and you have no control over it at all and we realized that there were monsters. There were people around who looked like regular people but at certain times, if you got on their bad side or crossed them or ran into them at certain times, you could really see that they were dangerous and they could kill you and one of the reasons —

So, this is now I’m talking maybe ’66. There weren’t a lot of kids being killed by handguns then. When the handgun issue really became serious in the ’80s and handguns began being pumped into urban centers all over America, the idea that these monsters — see, to me, the monsters were grown men, right? These were grown men who might — these weren’t your friends. This wasn’t a guy that you met around a corner. When the monsters become a guy you grew up with who lived around the corner, a guy you saw every day, I think it began to really change the way you think about your life in this country. We knew there were monsters. We thought there was some slight possibility we might run into one of them and they might kill us and I always thought that I wanted to come back in a community and say, well, there are monsters but there are heroes, right? There were people who were there to fight, so don’t be scared, right? Don’t be scared. We’re going to be here.

When handguns came out, I began to see this issue of, you know, who’s going to protect the kids and the adults sort of not being in the forefront of protecting kids as a huge problem in poor communities, particularly African American communities because it has a real impact on African American boys and if you look at the murder rates and if you look at the incarceration rates and if you just look at the level of inner sort of personal violence that happens in so many of these communities, you see the end result of what I was afraid of in like ’66 that the monsters would become real.