Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Examining Voter Apathy

BOND: Now, do you think your legitimacy as a leader is in your ability to persuade people that your point of view is the right point of view? And is that connected to your ability to articulate a kind of vision? Where does it come from in you? What's the grounding of this in you?

CONYERS: Julian, the first thing is your belief system. The second thing is tenacity, but the third thing is your analytical ability to persuade. Now, here's what I'm talking about. I keep asking myself this heartwrenching question. How can, within our lifetime, people who were threatened with death to try to vote, can now adopt the attitude that "My vote won't count," "It doesn't mean that much anymore" -- and I've got to figure out what it is. To me, that's a very important goal. I mean, when we have half the people in the country, of all colors, walking away from a franchise on which this constitutional democracy is based.

There is a clear opening and I see it important for me, to not only understand that dimension of the problem, but the other part of it is that, how can a working man and his family who are not African American align himself politically with people who have no concern for workers' well beings, whatever. When they move a plant, when they close down a foundry in Dearborn and move it overseas or to Mexico, they don't sit around and worry about "How many black workers will this affect?" or "How many white workers will this affect?" They say [to] all four-and-a-half thousand people, "Your job is ended."

And so I keep asking myself the other part of the first conundrum: How can I communicate to them that their best interest is not aligning themselves with conservative forces who show little disrespect? They'll take away a worker's overtime benefits. They don't say, "This is black workers' overtime benefits. We're going to take away everybody's overtime benefits. We're going to give you a prescription drug plan" -- which will in some cases be worse than the system we're trying to improve, because the drug company will be able to drop some prescription drugs at their will, but you are bound to stay in the plan for one year regardless of what they do.

So, I keep thinking about -- and the conservatives in Michigan gave me eight other cities of which there are very few African Americans just to see how this would work out -- and the amazing thing is, is that because of the way I've -- my philosophical view, I don't have to change when I go -- they're mostly working class people, not all, but I don't have to say, "Well -- " My legislative aide doesn't have to say, "Well, now you're here down river now, and you've got -- " When I take them my record which was not built with them in mind, they say, "Oh, you're for keeping jobs in America. You want a fair tax system, not one that benefits the wealthy disproportionate to working people. You're for a better public school system." And you can't make up your background, your history. And to me it validates my vision and my philosophy, so then I go deeper into it, and I'm trying to figure how I really get them to see that you got to -- your self interest requires that you support people who are going to govern in this way. And so those are the two challenges that confront me, even today as we speak.