Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Personal Heroes: MLK, Jr., & Nelson Mandela

CONYERS: And this gets into the two other people that affected my philosophy, my political point of view, was Martin Luther King, Jr., and of course, Nelson Mandela.

BOND: I read some place that you had read King's speeches. You mentioned a moment ago that you'd been south and worked with the movement in the South. You read King's speeches. You got to know him. What effect did he have on you?

CONYERS: He was the most profound impact on my political philosophy of any human being.

King -- you know, I think we may not fully yet appreciate what the power of one man -- and you know the history because you were a part of it, too, and you saw even from where you were, that we had to do something profound. You remember that the civil rights leaders came to Martin and said, "Martin, please don't do this. We know you're going to get killed, but you're going to get us all destroyed. You'll destroy this beginning movement." And they pleaded, "You cannot have a non-violent movement to end segregation in the South." It didn't connect. And Martin had to form the Southern Christian Leadership Council. You had to go to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee because the young people there -- and people forget how young our leaders were then. Twenties and thirties. You met a forty-year-old man, we treated him with respect.

BOND: He was an old man.

CONYERS: He was one of the seniors! And so as I began to realize what Martin went through and to understand, and I read and studied and got to know the family and the little kids in the family. All that he went through, that his own government was trying not just to destroy the movement, but to destroy him, because they perceived if you could destroy King, the movement might shatter. And here was a guy that told you just before his end, "I've been to the mountaintop."

And Nelson Mandela. Now, look, twenty-seven years imprisonment is almost unthinkable in terms of us saying, "John -- " And there was no guarantee that he was going to ever be president of his country. He didn't say, "Well, when I get out, I've got a great political future." And he kept himself together. I mean, as a matter of fact, it may have made him stronger. And those two people and the people around them, because as you know, there were so many unsung people whose names will never go into the history books, who'll never be celebrated.

Oh yes, Fannie Lou Hamer, but there were other Fannie Lou Hamers. They were other Martin Kings. There were other Nelson Mandelas. Countless numbers. And I said, "You know, this is a lesson that one person -- and this goes back to "How tenacious are you about your ideas?" I mean, do you just go to the NAACP dinners and make a contribution and say, "Yes, I support the NAACP," and "Sure, I'm proud of the chairman of the board of the NAACP," and "it's a grand historic organization," or, how deep does it go?

And these two people -- and not just because they were people of color. It was because of the nature of their struggle, Julian, the nature of inner resolve and commitment that became the examples of my life. That I still hold. I've added, there're other people that I admire. There're other people in other cultures and other times in history who were obviously heroic. All that came out of the Reconstruction movement and post-Reconstruction and the first men of color that came to the Congress and the U.S. Senate. But here were two people that I knew and touched and lived with, talked with.

One of the things that I've already started working on after this election is to take -- and I hope that I can get you to join with me -- in leading a group of Americans that go to South Africa to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela before he leaves this earth.

BOND: Oh, I'd love to go.