Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Obligations of Black Leaders

BOND: Do you think black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans or is there some point when that obligation, if it exists, ends and you can pursue your own ambitions, your own hopes and dreams?

DAVIS: Well, I think black leaders have an obligation to help everyone who is down, not just black people and it has — I suppose the election of Obama as President helps us to understand the extent to which what we might call the black radical freedom tradition has had an impact on everyone. It’s not just about black people but it’s helped to shape movements that lead to greater advances toward freedom and so I don’t think narrowly in terms of black people. As a matter of fact, I think it can be very dangerous to think narrowly in terms of only blacks. There’re a lot of black people around who don’t identify with collective community quests for freedom, so I like to think about communities that are shaped using political standards and not simply racial standards. I don’t count every black person simply because she or he is black as a member of my community. And, you know, I often point out people responded to the Barack Obama election by saying, "I never thought that an African American would be elected president in my lifetime," but I don’t think that is what they meant because, had Clarence Thomas been elected President, I don’t think people would’ve gone around saying, "I never thought that — " You see what I’m saying?

BOND: Yes, I see what I’m saying, but I think they might’ve said the same thing were that to happen.

DAVIS: But I don’t think that there would have been black people —

BOND: No —

DAVIS: — who were just so emotionally awed by this —

BOND: But, of course, you know there was a segment of the black population that when Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court that rallied to him because of his race —

DAVIS: I know. I know.

BOND: — and assumed that his race meant that he was with them on issues.

DAVIS: I absolutely remember that.

BOND: It was so distressing.

DAVIS: But I remember some people realized their mistake afterwards, particularly —

BOND: Yes, after they foisted him on us, it was too late.

DAVIS: Yes, exactly.

BOND: Is it part of the historical obligation that because we ourselves have come out of such intolerable conditions and achieved a modicum of change that we therefore have a responsibility to help others who are like us do the same?

DAVIS: I think that black Americans do have a very deep historical responsibility to assist others who are subjugated or oppressed. I don’t think this happens automatically. I don’t think that there’s a causal relationship between the quest for African American freedom and solidarity with, for example, immigrant struggles. I think that this has to be a point that our movements emphasize that justice is, after all, indivisible. June Jordan once said that, and I never fail to repeat that — justice is indivisible, and so, for example, today, the civil rights struggle involves civil rights for immigrants, civil rights for prisoners, civil rights for GLBT communities, and I think that this one of the major challenges of the moment to persuade such leaders as ministers, black ministers, to recognize this and to communicate this message to their congregations.

BOND: Yes.