Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Robert Kennedy

GRAVES: If you ask me where I really learned something about leadership, one was the military; most of all, my parents in terms of what they did; and three had to be working for Robert Kennedy. Everyday was Monday working for Robert Kennedy, every day. We had a saying around the office, "The unbelievable we did, but" – it's not very original, but – "the unbelievable we did immediately, the impossible took a little longer," because when Kennedy walked into a studio like this and said, "I want this to be a gym tomorrow," and that would be fairly simple. But if he said to you "I want this to be a housing – I want this to be a condo tomorrow," you say, "That's impossible, how in the world could you make it a condo?" And the guy or the woman who had worked for him for six months longer than I had, would say, "Look, this is going to be a condo tomorrow, so let's get on with it and get it done." And that was the attitude you had working for Kennedy, and so we had the best rallies, we had the largest crowds, we had the best staff. When you work for him, when he said, "What you are doing for me this month?" And in the areas I worked, I would help delivery service and physical development, have to deal with real estate. And then I was assigned politically to make sure that the right postmaster got to be the postmaster of Long Island or Levittown because I had a responsibility for Nassau County and Suffolk County as two areas of geographic responsibility. So you had programmatic responsibilities and you had geographic responsibilities. Again, it gave you an opportunity to show your best and if you didn't show your best, [gesture] I mean, because Kennedy was not having it. You know, he didn't suffer people who were not getting the job done.

BOND: Now you write in your book that you and he were not intimate friends, but obviously he knew you, you knew him. What did you absorb from him besides this, "Do it now, do it right, do the right thing, or you're out of here?" Besides that, what did this association mean to you? I don't mean the future contacts, but –

GRAVES: Well, first of all, I think I bring a set of values. I mean I didn't learn values from Kennedy, and I didn't learn values from the military. I think my parents gave me that.

BOND: Sure.

GRAVES: And he had values in terms of he wanted, he thought – he had a moral compass and so I could identify with that. He was very religious, right? And practiced his religion. I mean, when we set up his schedule, if it was a Sunday and we knew we were going to be on the road, we had to find a Catholic church he was going to, right. And he wanted it to be, of course, he wanted it to be – it could be an Irish neighborhood, but the priest had to be Latino and the people attending the church probably, he wanted to be Chinese, and it would help if there were a couple of nuns who were in wheelchairs, and so he wanted that balance even in church. But again it taught you politically the right things to do, but the moral compass that he had was very much – and the values that I brought him and the values of, you know, seeing a table full of money that had been collected and knowing that when you were finished that table of money was just going to still be there. The knowing of things you were going to hear, and some of which you were going to forget, and others that you were going to – that was going to teach you a lesson. And Kennedy would go – because each one of us was assigned at certain times to go with him – and be going to a political situation, and Kennedy would turn to me and say, "Well, you better zipper your pockets on this and hold on." Because you know there was always somebody asking for something, I mean, there was always somebody pulling on him, "Can you do so-and-so for me?" And so I have some of the same attitudes today also because I find myself when I walk into a situation at this school, if some youngster does not hand me a resume, it'll be the first time in the last thirty years that I've been somewhere that some youngster would not have handed me a – in fact I'd be disappointed if the University of Virginia did not have some student that wanted to hand me a resume, and you can probably lay that out and make it happen now, but the fact is that that always has happened.