Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The Power of One Person

BOND: And all this comes, you think, from your father's concerns? I remember reading some place of him reading about the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the newspaper?

CONYERS: 1939 -- yes, it was September 1, 1939.

BOND: And his imputing to you that this was a big event?

CONYERS: Yes. I remember that headline. It's funny what you remember and what you forget, you know, as the years pass, but September 1, 1939, Hitler invades. They used to do those headlines that really, in the old days, that would grab you, and my father explained to me that things will never be the same. And of course, Roosevelt -- there was a strong movement against us getting involved in European wars and Roosevelt was under a great deal of pressure and as it later turned out he was negotiating with England of how he could help them without us getting into war, and of course the Japanese made it easier for -- December 7th for him to declare war and eventually we got in, which was very important.

Now, the power of one person: Hitler was one of the most evil but determined people. You stop and think about -- how can a little landlocked European country which needs oil, and needs a seaport, needs everything-- how could they become a world threat? And through guile and cunning and a belief of racial superiority, Adolf Hitler is exactly the counterparts to King and Mandela. Here was a totally driven, right up until the end, even fought off mutinies within his own elite guard. But to me I keep seeing that lesson coming up time and time again. [Thurgood] Marshall in the Supreme Court and all those Howard University law professors who decided to bring this case, that nobody thought could possibly win, to the Supreme Court. In instance after instance in the business world, people who start off and they say, "Look, you can't make it." There's a John James Trucking Company now that's a hundreds of millions of dollar-business. The guy started off with he and his father and a truck, and this instance keeps coming to me in different forms and it started with my dad.

BOND: With your dad pointing out in some way or the other, that one person could make a difference, or giving you the lesson of perseverance?

CONYERS: He never sat me down as I am wont to do with my boys. He never sat me down and said, "Look, let me -- " He was this kind of father that -- "Here's the picture. here's Clarence Darrow." Here's a guy that could go into any courtroom, who was once a corporate lawyer himself and something happened that changed his life and he worked for the little guy. He represented this black doctor that had the temerity to --

BOND: Ossian Sweet.

CONYERS: The Sweet case.

BOND: I wondered if your father knew about Darrow from that?

CONYERS: No, he knew about Darrow from before that. No, he had studied Darrow all the way through, but that case made a huge impression on us and the fact that Clarence Darrow would take the case, but my father -- we had another instance. My father was at the Battle of the Overpass at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn where Ford -- and they had this historic picture. My father has more pictures up at Local 600 in Dearborn than he does at Chrysler because they have this picture of the Ford Motor Car people, and they had hired goons and gangsters to back them up, and they had baseball bats and here on the other side walking up was Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, and other people and that was just before they turned loose -- and of course, all the police were working with the company. And this was bloody. People were killed and people were in homes for the rest of their lives. It was a very awful, ugly scene of violence, and they finally were able to organize. And they took other organizers and because there were a number of black workers -- it was a funny things about Ford. He was very patronizing. He wanted to pay his workers, he set the scale, but he didn't want unions. "I'll take care of you, but you cannot organize." And so they resisted the organizing more fiercely than they did with General Motors in Flint, or Chrysler in Detroit, but when they got to Ford, the Battle of the Overpass was something. You know, we were so happy that he didn't -- he came out unscathed.