Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Armed Service

BOND: And then you move out of college and into the military. And what did the military do for you?

GRAVES: Well, first of all, the military was made for me.

BOND: Gave you a leadership position –


BOND: You graduate as a lieutenant.

GRAVES: Exactly.

BOND: ROTC lieutenant.

GRAVES: Yep. And they said I was an officer and a gentleman right away. Right. The gentleman part, my mother thought, still needed a little work to get it straight for me. But, I mean, I say that a little tongue-in-cheek. What the military did, first of all, the military was integrity because of Harry Truman in 19–

BOND: '48.

GRAVES: '48. The military became integrated. But I was in an ROTC class with a huge number of – well, for the most part, there were maybe about a dozen African Americans in a company of maybe two hundred people. And so the integration was really not happening to the extent that it needed to. But we all got along. I never saw any – I never saw any – my roommate was from Oklahoma, right? I think he had to adjust. He was a little bit out of it. A guy about 5' 4''. That might have been part of his problem also, being 5' 4''. But the military gave you a chance to be the best. And the reason so many people, so many men – because at that time women were not in the ROTC and they are now – and it's striking to me to go to a graduation and see two or three women stand up sharp as they can be and be young lieutenants also. The military gave you an opportunity, on an equal footing, to prove you were as good as the next person, and we did that with a vengeance. We did it in Korea; we did it in Vietnam, in terms of showing what the – the mettle we were made of. And so when I – when I went into the service, I volunteered and I went to Rangers Group first as a young lieutenant and I went to Airborne School, jumping out of airplanes. In fact, the joke is that on my honeymoon the plane landed and I was more petrified of the plane landing than I was of it taking off because every plane up until that point that I had taken off in, I jumped out of. I thought everybody had a parachute. And so my wife and I are on our honeymoon and we managed to land in the plane.

BOND: Good.

GRAVES: But then, again, it gave me a chance to really be a leader. I had the best platoon in the company, and then I had the best company in the regiment because at that time we were on the regimental organization within the service. And when I graduated – I ended up graduating when I got out of the service after two years because I only put two years of active duty in. Again, I could – you know, that was a discipline, the army. You put your clothes in one place, you put your socks in another place. Your rifles went in another place. And so the reason that I was able to do as well as I did, and the company did as well as it did, is because I led by example. And I think without realizing that there was a leadership thing, I just knew I wanted to be the best. I inculcated that into my people. And that's a word I probably overuse, but I wanted them to know that if you want to be good, you have to start with a baseline of where you're going to be and then set a goal for yourself. And what I tell people today, and I've written it in my book, in order to be successful, you really do have to have goals for yourself. And when I lecture the young people as I will this afternoon at the business school, I know that will come out regularly because if you don't have a plan – in business you have to have a five-year. You have a one-year plan, a five-year plan and a long range ten-year plan. And if you don't have those goals, you're not going to make it. And in this economic environment obviously, today, there has to be, with the tragedy of what has happened on September 11th.

BOND: Let me ask you about something. We're going to talk about Ron Brown in a minute. But you and Ron Brown are only two of a larger cadre of people in our generation – I'm sixty-one, you're sixty-seven –


BOND: Six.

GRAVES: I've got four more months to go.

BOND: But large numbers of figures in this generation who are leadership figures in law, or medicine, or any other field – relatively few of them have any kind of military service. And I'm wondering what that service did for him and for you to distinguish you –

GRAVES: That's very easy.

BOND: – and how does it distinguish you from the larger group that doesn't have this service? I had no military service.

GRAVES: Very easy. The military gives you enormous responsibility at a very young age. I arrived on the base, Fort Dix – I first went off to Infantry School and then to these other two schools – Ranger School and Airborne School as I mentioned to you – arrived on the post at Fort Dix and they said, "Those forty men you're responsible for. You're responsible for any problems they have, you're responsible for their being to places on time, you're responsible for how well they know how to clean a rifle, you're responsible for how well they keep their barracks, you're responsible for them to be back on the post. If they get a weekend pass, they gotta be back and if they're not back, that means you didn't tell ‘em. They didn't hear what you told them. They have to be back on time." And here I was twenty-one or twenty-two, responsible for forty other adult men, all right. And then I became the executive officer of a company and that meant that I even had greater responsibility. And then I became a company commander. Now at that point, I was the exec officer and then a company commander for a brief period of time for a company of about three hundred men. It was a headquarters, a headquarters company.

Well, I was giving instruction to people – sergeants who could have been my father. In fact, the reason that I really did not stay in the military, my wife-to-be was appalled that here were these men who were fifty years old having to salute me and I was only twenty-two years old. And she could not get in her mind the discipline of some person who could be my father having to not only take orders from me, but looking to me for guidance. Well, that meant that the – and that headquarters cut me to about three hundred men. I used to have a payroll about a quarter-million dollars. They would hand you a bag of money – a satchel of money with United States Mint written on it or whatever – U.S. Treasury, excuse me – a bag of money on payroll day. Once a month the troops got paid. They'd have one sergeant walking you with a car, and you with a forty-five, and you'd have that quarter-million dollars. You'd march over to that headquarters company where you would accompany a commander or an exec at the time, and you'd sit there and count out every dollar. And if there was a dollar missing, you were in trouble, if there was $50 missing, because as far as they were concerned, you have to come back and tell them before you started the payroll – before you started giving the men – and payroll, every one of those sergeants, every one of those privates is waiting for their pay. So there's a leadership thing that said, "A quarter-million dollars. I gotta find this money now." I must tell you when I was $10 over, I didn't worry about it. When I was $10 under, since I was getting paid a whole $237 a month to jump out of planes, with a little extra money for jumping out of planes and not landing them, I had – I was very conscious.

But what would happen, you'd put all the money in envelopes and so your hands were green by the time you got ready to actually give the money to the men. And I knew in my mind that somebody was going to shriek somewhere in the middle of the afternoon because I was going to hand somebody an envelope that had $10 shy. And they were usually – in other words, if I had $10 left over and I counted all this money, I was not about to see where this $10 was due. And so I knew that sometime during the morning, somebody's going to come over in a panic and say, "Lieutenant, Lieutenant, I'm missing $10." And I'd say, "Prove it." And the poor guy would stand there and count it out and I'd just hand him the $10 bill. Now when I was $10 under, I'd say, "Count it again and let me see what you got," because I wanted to find where the $10 was. Sometimes you'd have to go through half the company to find this $10 bill. So it was a discipline, again, that you learn. Hopefully that answered the question.