Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Development

BOND: Now, when did you think of yourself as a leader? Is it in high school? Is it in college where you get elected to leadership positions, or you're demonstrating leadership by having businesses that employ other people? When do you say, or do you ever say, "I'm a leader"?

GRAVES: I think I say that now. I think that Black Enterprise Magazine which you're going to come to, I assume, in this discussion.

BOND: But before that, in the military?

GRAVES: It's very much there now. But I think in college I realized – my roommate and I used to kid around because between us we were running about six organizations on campus. Again, the reason you get to be in charge is because most people are lazy. They want someone else to do the work for them. So one of us was president of the fraternity. He was the president of the student body. I was president of the Episcopal Club. I was president of the men's dorm by acclamation from myself if you remember, I mentioned that. He was president, he was the colonel in charge of the ROTC regiment, meaning the student commander of the ROTC regiment. So between us we were running about six things. Now we didn't walk around saying "Are you a leader? Am I a leader?" and giving each other high five. In fact high five's were not in at that point. That means that you and I are really old if they were not in at that point. But anyway we probably had some other way to identify.

BOND: I'm just curious about when you began to say, if not articulate out loud, that, "I'm a leader. I'm running this, I'm running that, I'm running this." So you're saying this was college where this became apparent that you had these skills. You had these abilities. People would follow you. You could run things. It becomes clear to you then during your college years and in the military, of course.

GRAVES: Military followed right with that. Then I went into real estate. When I got out, as I told you I got out of the military and went into real estate, I sat there and became one of the star salesmen – because, you know, when you sell three houses you picked up $1,000 from three sales. You can get reasonably comfortable with $3,000 a month particularly when they're paying teachers $3,000 a year and you're making that in a month. But that wasn't enough to satisfy. So the other people were lazy. So I realized that if knew the houses before – they didn't have any multiple listings at that time – and so if I knew the houses that were going to come on sale or be available for sale, and I knew a customer that wanted that, I would go and find a house, just the house that person wanted. So I became one of the stars of that real estate office. I don't mean to sound immodest about it, but maybe it wasn't that hard to be a star. But I was able to be the best in that real estate office at an early age. And then, of course, having this military background, the white guy who we all were working for, the ownership of the brokerage office, was a person, white. He would say, "There's that lieutenant again showing you guys how to do things."

But it goes back to – you know, a real leader does not walk around checking all the time to see if he or she is a leader. I mean, today if you ask me – and we'll cover it, what's happening back in New York, I'm very much involved in trying to help with a fund for African-American firemen and policemen, not that they won't be handled by the general fund, but they have some special needs which I'll speak to the students about this afternoon. Again, I didn't stand around and wait. I just decided let me go do something. I called up the heads of the major organizations that have to do with African-American firemen and policemen and this tragedy for September 11th. There's Noble. There are the Guardians, which is the rank and file. There's the Vulcans, which are the firemen. There's the International Fraternity of Black Firefighters. Going to those folks and saying I can help you, and let me show you how. So now we're already well off to what will be raising money to help and train – retain – recruit, retain, and promote African-American firemen and policemen who have not had the opportunity. But again, that's not waiting for someone standing around to say, "Let's do something." It is – and I must say to you that you don't say to yourself every day "I'm a leader." You just get on with it. The reason that I can be successful in business is because the people in my office know that I'm going to lead by example. And I'm doing it for my sons. The reason my sons are as successful as they are in business, and the reason they are as successful as they are as young men and as parents, is because they've had an opportunity to see what my wife and I have done. We've been married forty-one years. She said she raised four sons – the three of them and me. I think that's not being too generous, but anyway, we love each other very much. But they got a chance to see that. They got a chance to see me cut grass. They got a chance to see me work hard, and they are very close to their sons, again, because they knew that when they played Little League baseball I was there.

There's nothing worse than Little League Baseball. That's like watching paint dry. It's like watching grass grow – in terms of slow, it's boring. Most of the kids in Scarsdale are not terribly coordinated in terms of their athletics and watching the ball go behind them and between their legs. But the fact is that I was there. So that's again – and you've done the same thing with your kids – you just sat here and regaled to me what each one of the five children is doing and how well they're doing and you're proud of them. That's a part of leadership. Again, it's a term we're using here in this event, and I think you're forcing me more to think about the leader that I am today, and whereas, than I probably ever thought about in my life. I just went ahead and did it and people accepted it. That's the other thing, because again I say to you, people, black and white, basically are inherently lazy. They'd rather somebody else do it. It really does not have to do with race. It just has to do with the make up. A lot of people don't want to walk in harm's way either, all right. That's another part of it. I mean to be a leader, to be the civil rights leader that you were – I've said all the time you probably – some of the arthritis you're feeling right now and although you're still young – has to do with getting clubbed in some event that you were – some demonstration you were at, or just having the guts to do it. If you don't have ulcers today, it's a small miracle. And so again, you were doing, without realizing you were setting an example. But you set an example for the world, not just for this country.