Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Foundational Experiences

BOND: Now, I don’t want to go right away to this, but obviously you had to be learning things then – both high school and college – that affected the leadership position you much later come to. What was it then, student government -- ? What was then, you think, that helped you become the leader you’re later going to become?

FUTRELL: Well, I think one was building confidence. Another one was the ability to work with people, learning how to work with all kinds of people, learning how to listen, learning how to appreciate different ideas and not look at the source of the idea but the quality of the idea. I think it was, how do I phrase it, being able to motivate people, because see, I became the captain of the cheering squad. And so being able to motivate, being able to lead, being able to get people to do things -- I think a major part of leadership is being able to persuade people to do things, having the will and the ability and the desire to do things. And so, when you were out there, and your team is losing and you've still got to cheer, or you've still got to play, or you’re competing for these FBLA awards, or student government, or what, and even though you don’t win, as long as you’ve done your best. So a lot of those things helped.

Also church. You know in church that was the first time that I stood up and spoke out, you know. It was little things like you maybe would say the Twenty-third Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer or something like that. But just having the courage to get up there and speak out. Being in a school play. Those kinds of activities give you confidence and give you the ability to get up and do things that later you know, you take for granted. And I tell people all the time, "What I have learned and what I have done as a leader started back in Lynchburg. Started back in Virginia State College where I was given the opportunity or opportunities to be out front and to do things." I had to grow like anyone else. I was not -- I don’t think I was a natural leader. I had to acquire skills and I had to grow and so I was also willing to learn, willing to study, willing to listen. And so those things helped me later.

BOND: How did you overcome defeats -- and I -- you know, you apply for a leadership position or you want to win a prize and you don’t get it? I mean it happens all the time to everybody, but how did you overcome those defeats?

FUTRELL: You know, when I was in high school, I was selected to be, I think it was either the vice president or something like that, for the student government and it was taken away from me. And the reason it was taken away was because I wasn’t there at the time of the election and I wasn’t there because I was off cheerleading. And they told me, "You weren’t present, so we gave it to someone else." Well, no one had told me that I had to be there to win. And I was upset, but I said, "Life goes on." So if you really believe that you can be a leader, you come back, and first of all you stick with the organization, but then you come back and you try again. Well, when I became -- first started getting involved in the association, a lot of people don’t know that I ran for the Virginia Educational Associations Board of Directors, and they refused to put my name forward. And I don’t know whether it was because I was black or because I was a woman, or what it was. But they refused to put my name forward. And then when I insisted that they put my name forward, they refused to put the vita information forward. So when the ballot went out with the accompanying documentation, all they had was my name, and where I taught, and the association to which I belonged. But they didn’t talk about anything I had done. But my opponent, you know, there was this long page. And they didn’t send it out until they sent out the ballots so I had no chance to correct it.

And I decided to challenge it. I feel sometimes like Gore feels – but people were very angry with me because I had the audacity to challenge this election and they told me that in all the history of the VEA no one had ever challenged the election. And I said, "Well, if I had been treated fairly and lost, I would not have challenged." I said, "But I was not treated fairly. First, they didn’t want to put my name on the ballot, I had to fight for that. Secondly, when they put my name on the ballot, they didn’t put any information about me." And so I fought it. I had to go before the entire General Assembly, Virginia; VEA, General Assembly. I was surprised when they ruled in my favor. I thought I wasn’t going to win. And I’m going to confess and say that after I made my speech, or during my speech, I was so scared I had to prop my knee against the podium to keep from falling down.

BOND: To keep from shaking?

FUTRELL: No! I was so scared, I was afraid I was going to fall down, that’s how scared I was. Then, when it was over, I went out in the back, and I got on the steps and I put my head down and covered it up because I was so sure there was going to be this huge resounding "No." And they came and got me, they said, "Mary, you won." And I said, "What?" And they said, "Yes, you won!" And I said, "No, you’re kidding me, I couldn’t have." ‘Cause this had never happened. And what they basically did, is they refused to honor the election. And they sent it back, and then they -- but then what they did is, they said that my opponent nor I could run for it. So they selected somebody else.

But you learn how to survive. You learn, Julian, that if you believe in something strongly enough, that you’re willing to go back and keep trying. You also have to believe in yourself, and if you’ve done things and you’ve done it fairly, you have to stand up and fight for yourself. And when you grew up in a segregated society like I did, you learn how to fight early. And so, when I look back on all the things I experienced in Lynchburg, and Virginia State, and other places – I had learned at Virginia State to be a fighter, to stand up. I had learned in Lynchburg, unknowingly, to stand up. And so, you don’t let defeat stop you. You come back and you keep trying. And if you believe in it -- the organization or the concept or whatever -- you have to stand up and fight for what you believe in, even if you’re not the person up front. You support who is up front. And so, that’s basically what happened.