Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Foundational Leadership Experiences

BOND: Now, you write about your military service as you were attracted to the discipline of the military. But it strikes me that you were already exhibiting enormous discipline, enormous self-control to do all of these many things in college. What was it about the military particularly that – the discipline there?

GRAVES: First of all, by that time I had – I was a student leader on campus. I mean I started getting involved in activities. And it's very easy to be a leader, and it's because I always used to have it in my head that anybody could be average and it takes another ten minutes to be above average. I kind of carried that in my head because I would see that it was just easy to keep your room straight where you could find everything you needed, and even at home I always did that. If you ask me today – and I've got a fairly large closet, my wife would say it's a sickness, but in any event – but buying clothes, it's just that I wasn't fortunate enough to do that a long time ago – I have a fairly large closet and yet I could say to you, "Julian, go home, open up the – there's three sets of drawers on the left-hand side as you go in the room. In the left-hand set of the three drawers in the bottom drawer you're going to find my brown socks and they'll be in – get me a pair of brown socks now." You say, "Well – " My wife's going to say that's a little sick, but actually I know where things are. I can tell you w here the summer suits are and I can tell you where things are. I'm that way about my office. You don't find any – when I leave – someone told me many, many years ago. I asked a person – a time-in-motion person – I said, "What's the most successful executive you ever met?" And this is twenty years ago. He said to me, "He was a person that never left a piece of paper on his desk when he left." From that time on – if you went to my desk right now – if there's a piece of paper on my desk, now I might have hidden it in the drawer, I can't tell you I haven't done that. But if the mail comes in that day, I try to get the mail out. If I get an e-mail – and my family is very proud of me now that I'm learning about computers –

BOND: I'm proud of you too, Earl. I'm waiting for you to send me the first e-mail.

GRAVES: You're going to get one. Stand by. But the discipline of doing things a certain way – I just found that people were kind of lazy in general. They wanted somebody else to do it for them. So therefore, on campus I became the person who was responsible for giving the fraternity parties and the fraternity activities – the ball, black-tie ball we held each year. They were at the beginning of the year, which was an enormous sum, they'd give me $3,000 and say, "Take care of the activities." Well, one, they trusted me and, two, they should have trusted me. But I didn't have a car on campus. That enabled me to take taxis everywhere because I had the budget all worked out in my mind and we had the best entertainment you could possibly imagine for what was $3,000 for the whole year. And that meant that I had the money from the fraternity, money from the sorority, because we had a sister sorority called the Deltas, as Omegas, which is a large African-American – the largest and most important, we say African-American fraternity.

But the point is that I could organize that. I could organize some of the demonstrations we had to integrate the movie theater near the campus, contiguous with the campus almost, because in the fifties, Baltimore was still very much segregated. So we opened up the theaters. We opened up the shopping center, and the shopping center in Baltimore when I was at Morgan, if you put on a hat, it wasn't just a Berman hat. You owned the hat. And so there was a great hostility between the surrounding campus, the physical, surrounding campus and what was, in fact, the student body. And I was involved in that. I got to be in charge of the committee that ordered all the movies on campus, and for one semester we had nothing but Westerns until the dean grabbed me and said, "Graves, we can't have Westerns every week for what the campus would watch." My wife says that there's a mental lapse somewhere since I still very much like watching John Wayne, because you know John Wayne – the Indians are going to lose because that's the way it has to come out according to Hollywood – and so you can go off and go to the bathroom, get a hamburger, and come back and still see that John Wayne's beating up on the Indians. But again, it enabled me to be a leader.

I remember one semester that we had a men's dormitory council – not one semester, it was actually my senior year. And – somehow there were monitors for each floor, and monitors for each of the three men's dorms. So this dormitory council, I was one of the senior people in the council. At the end of the year we didn't have elections. In other words, they elected a president for the men's dormitories at the end of the school year. Somehow we didn't have elections and nobody paid attention. When we came back, all of the members who had been part of the council had graduated the year before. I was the only member left over, but there were other junior members. But in the meeting, since I was the only one who was a junior at the time, no one else knew what had happened and the dean said, “Well, who did they elect as president when the council broke up?” And I looked around and there was no one. I said, “I was elected.” Well, that was the end of that election. I mean, I became president of the men's dormitory council by acclamation, my own acclamation, because no one else knew. But again it was a matter of just setting a tone. So, therefore, we had budgets to allow us to do certain things on campus.

I sang in a men's glee club within the men's dormitory. I enjoyed doing that, and still do. I have a terrible voice but I enjoy singing. I'm loud and that makes a difference. But then, again, running the business – it was a matter of I wanted to make money. I knew that if I was going to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish in life, and I always had a goal that I'd look at so that it wasn't a car. Some how I always was interested in real estate, and I've done well in real estate. I don't mean to make that sound immodest but it's just a statement of fact in terms of those things that I invested in. And so I looked at things that I saw on the campus. I was challenged by my professors in school and I was majoring in economics. And one of the things that the students found difficult to understand was why was I majoring in something to do with economics or business. There were no – there were literally were no recruitment going on on the campus at all and there was no recruitment going on for African Americans so it didn't matter whether you were at Notre Dame or you were at Morgan State. There was no recruitment from major corporations. I was out of school at least ten years before the first recruiter showed up on the campus from a place like IBM to really invite African-Americans to come to work for major corporations. Keep in mind that, you know, you were yet to fight the civil rights movement when I left school. You were probably not even a teenager at that point. So in the sixties, when you opened up things it was going to be much different in many ways that you weren't even aware of. Today, the youngsters on campus if they haven't had six interviews or ten offers in the course of a school year, if they're good students, they really think they're having a bad year. There was no – you had no opportunity to have a bad year, when I left school you had three or four options.

But the headquarters for the Social Security Administration was in Baltimore. As a graduating senior you could work for the Social Security Administration, that was government work, which again African-Americans have always been very involved in, not by choice, but that was really the only opportunity – to go work for government, that could be local government, state government or federal government, usually the lowest paying jobs. But at least you had security of knowing that if, you know, you worked thirty years you'd get a gold watch, maybe, and you'd retire, and you'd have a retirement. And so you had Social Security Administration – you could teach school, which many students were graduating and doing. They were paying teachers about $3,000 a year. And then you could go to, then you join – through the ROTC program, you become an Army officer. I chose that upon graduation – to go off to the Army and it was the best – one of the best choices I ever made.