Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

How Are Leaders Created?

BOND: Let me ask you a question that you touched on a moment ago about how leaders are created, thrown up by movements, or create the movements themselves. Some people say it happens in one of three ways: great people cause great events, or movements make leaders, or the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for their times.

CONYERS: Well, that's easy. It's all three. Under different circumstances, I think historically I could come back and show you where a person is thrust into prominence that had no idea. Well, they called for this twenty-nine-year-old minister to come to Montgomery to help Rosa Parks. They needed somebody like this young fellow to keep them going. They weren't thinking about, "Well, we're now creating the greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century." But as a matter of fact, as you know, Ralph Abernathy was the leader of the civil rights movement, but through the activities, it became clear to everybody, including Ralph, that here this new kid on the block, previously untested, is exactly what we need for these times. He became number two, and I like to think they did it with a minimum of acrimony.

BOND: In your own life, you come to Congress and within three years you're a sponsor of the Voting Rights Act, which arguably is the most significant legislation passed in the twentieth century. How'd you go from that, freshman, lucky enough to get this appointment from the Speaker to the Judiciary Committee, but how'd you go from that, to taking this role at a time when Congress, I'm guessing, was much more stratified, much more stratified, than it is today? And here you are taking on a leadership role just three years out.

CONYERS: Because I was on the committee that had jurisdiction of the bill. And of course, it was -- and I remember when Whitney [Young] and Martin [Luther King Jr.] and sleeping porters --

BOND: A. Philip Randolph.

CONYERS: A. Philip Randolph -- they all went to Lyndon, and Johnson said, "I can't support another civil rights bill for you all! Look, you guys -- " And they were insistent. They finally persuaded Lyndon Baines Johnson that right -- almost consecutively -- the two largest civil rights bills in our day would be taken up. There I was on the committee working as closely with them as I could. Right time. Right place. Right person.