Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Development

BOND: People talk about leaders in different ways. There’re some leaders who cause great events to happen. There’re some leaders who come out of great events. And there’re some leaders that, something happens, and bam! a leadership figure emerges. Do you fit into any of those categories?

FUTRELL: Well, I probably fit into several of them. I've -- for example, I think that my stature as a leader was elevated because of a negative event. And the negative event was when the Supreme -- when the State Supreme Court took away collective bargaining.

BOND: Right.

FUTRELL: It was the first time that teachers had been led in a mass demonstration from a statewide perspective. And a lot of people were looking at, "Well, what is Virginia going to do? If Virginia just -- are the teachers just going to roll over and accept this and not do anything?" Well, people were shocked when the teachers came together to protest what had happened, as well as to protest -- at that time there were enormous cuts being made in education. And that, as I said, the first time that had happened. So a negative event helped catapult me as a leader. There've also been situations where, you know, you’re just in the right place at the right time. And so I think there've been several instances where if we put it all together, there’s no one way to define "How did you get to be this person?"

BOND: But, you know, regardless of which way you emerged, leaders emerge in one of these following ways, and I guess it’s fair to say that each of these different ways touched on you in some way. But can you look back over your life to date – think about that march in Richmond, 7,000 teachers, think about the arguments you had as head of the NEA with William Bennett, another negative event – has there been any common theme running through these things? I’m not sure, even sure if I’m asking a coherent question.

FUTRELL: Well, I think a common theme for me and from what I’ve heard people say, is that a willingness to stand up and to fight not only for what you believe is right but for the, quote unquote, "the people." The people in this instance being the teachers, the members, and the children. Being willing to stand up and speak out for what you believe is right. And so, when I look at the common themes, and I look at, and I listen to people, and why they say they supported me, and why they say they remember the things that I did. Those are the kinds of comments that I get back.

BOND: Well, I look at you now and obviously you’re poised, self-confident, articulate, it’s hard for me to balance that with someone whose hands were shaking so badly that people wondered that you couldn’t make a speech. Now how’d you go from that, to this?

FUTRELL: Well, now let me give you an example. I spoke a moment ago about Reggie Smith, who was, by the way, grew up in Appomattox -- not Appomattox, in -- oh, where’s -- Longwood! Farmville. When they closed down the school.

BOND: Okay.

FUTRELL: Reggie is dead now and I remember once I went to give a speech and I had my speech. I put it on the chair to go look at something. And while I was over looking at something, someone took my speech and as I realized the speech was gone, they called on me to get up and speak. And I was forced to get up and speak without the paper, and I remember distinctly that Reggie kept looking out the window. He would never look at me the whole time I was speaking. So, when I finished and I stepped down, I said, "Reggie," I said, "what happened to my speech?" He said, "I’m going to tell you the truth, I took it because it was about time you learned how to stand up and say what you had to say with out having a piece of paper."

And that’s the honest to goodness truth. And he said -- he said to me, "You don’t believe that you have the confidence to do these things." And he said, "I think you do." And so, I mean, that’s a small thing. But then, as you become more confident – "Well, I know the subject, I know the people, I know the organization" – and you build more confidence in yourself, then you stand up and you speak out. You have to understand, in education, and I know that you’re aware that there are hundreds of issues. You can’t be an expert on all of them. And so you’ve got to be able to say, "Now, where is my niche and what can I do?" Even in the teachers organization, "Where’s my niche and what can I do?" So I had to learn how to stand up and to give a speech, or even if I had one, you don’t have to go through it verbatim. You know, those were very frivolous things to happen, but that’s exactly what happened.

BOND: Can you imagine what would have happened on that occasion if you had stumbled and bumbled and said -- ?

FUTRELL: And I probably did.

BOND: Yeah, well --

FUTRELL: I probably did.

BOND: I bet you didn’t.

FUTRELL: And I remember the people, they were laughing at Reggie. We didn’t think he had the courage to do it.