Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Mother

BOND: Now, you’ve mentioned several times that your family was poor --


BOND: -- father died early, mother had to work, not only a regular job, but other jobs. What effect do you think this had on shaping you into the person you are today, the person you became?

FUTRELL: Well, my mother believed in hard work and she taught us to believe in hard work. Let me share a little story with you. When I became the president of the NEA, my husband and I moved into a new house and my mother came up to visit me and to help me -- to help us get settled. And I thought that was an opportune time to tell her what I thought about the way she had raised us. And I told her and I said, "I thought you were too hard on me. I thought you were too demanding of me." I said, "I didn’t get a lot of new clothes and my friends and others had new clothes," and I said, "Matter of fact, my older sister got more new clothes than I did. And clothes oftentimes they didn’t fit and they were homely looking,” and I just felt that was a time just to tell her what I thought. And she didn’t say anything, you know, and I said, "Well, I finally got it off my chest," and I was feeling pretty good about it. Well, Julian, the next morning, I don’t know about your mother, but my mother had a way of saying, let’s sit down and talk. And when I sat down, and she cupped my chin in her face, I knew I was in trouble. And what she said to me was, "I knew that you had potential, but I knew that if I didn’t hold onto you, that you would go astray." And she said, "I didn’t know what was going to happen to me." She said, “I didn’t know whether I was going to live to see you become an adult or whether I was going to die. I didn’t know whether I was doing my job, what was going to happen." So she said, “I had to make sure that you and Anne, and Marianne" -- my other foster sister -- "that you were prepared. And,” she said, "I felt that you had potential."

"A mother," she said to me, "knows her child. I knew you had potential and I had to make sure that that potential was developed. So," she said, "I had to teach you the value of work. Of hard work. Teach you the value of sacrifice. Teach you the value of believing in yourself and that you could achieve if you wanted to achieve and not let your circumstances control you." And she said, "I had to teach you to use your mind, and to develop it to the best of your ability. I had to teach you to be able to work with different people and to think for yourself, though, at the same time, not to be overly persuaded by other people." By the time she finished, obviously, I was in tears. Because I had never thought about it from that point of view. She basically was saying to me, "I had to teach you how to survive 'cause I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. But I wanted to make sure that whatever happened, you could stand on your own."

And when I look back, I am a very hard worker, and I laugh and tell her all the time, "I took that after you, I’m a workaholic." I love to study, I love to read, and I think that I took that after her as well. I’m the kind of person, I will help someone else, and I will do for others. That I think I got from her. So much of who I am today, I am because of the way she raised me. And she also said to us, "Your circumstances do not have to control you, you can be anything you want. But if you want to stay in a certain place, you can do that, too. But I want you to move forward." So she believed in me and taught me to believe in myself. And so when I look at where I am, and the things I’ve accomplished in my life, I have to give a lot of the credit to her.

BOND: Do you have any idea why your mother thought, and every parent thinks their child can do anything, but here your mother is living in this segregated system, limited by her own lack of education --


BOND: What made her believe that you, not you her child, but you a black child, could rise out of this, out of this segregated system? What made her think that you could surpass the circumstances of Lynchburg? This racial caste system?

FUTRELL: Well, I think you would have to look at her background. And her mother and her father both died before she was ten. And we talk about that often. She’s been more open about her family in the latter years than she was in the early years. And she talked about the fact that they had a nice home. And the family was together, the mother was a housewife, the father was the one that went out to work. And all of a sudden, everything changed. And all of a sudden they were orphans. You know, here were five kids with no mother and no father. And they had to go back to their relatives to stay, and their entire lives changed, you know, they didn’t have the nurturing, they didn’t have the middle class, they didn’t have the things they had had before. And how she did not let that stop her from believing that she could have a better life.

She deeply regretted the fact that she was not able to get a high school education because she had to go work. But she said, “I realized that by working and that by believing in myself and that by believing in others, and trying, that I could make my life better if I had a dream, if I had a goal, if I was just determined.” So I think a lot of what she did for us, and especially for me – and she worked in white people’s homes as a maid and she made very little money, and I remember a lot of times, Julian, the food that I ate was the food that she brought home from where she worked. And -- but that was the way we survived. You know, otherwise we wouldn’t have had any food. But she taught us, "You don’t hate white people. Don’t hate them. But you can do better than what you’ve done, you can do better than what I’ve done. What I’ve done, I think is good, but you can do even better." She just knew her children. And she felt very deeply that I could do a lot better than I was doing, and she was determined to make me succeed. And that kind of determination worked. And how she knew it, I don’t know. I guess it was a mother’s instinct. Mother’s intuition.