Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Foundational Experiences

BOND: Not everybody can do this, this kind of putting together a campaign, particularly in a small body like that. Where did you learn how to do this? How did you learn how to do this?

GRAY: If you can pastor a black Baptist Church, maneuvering in the Congress is easy. It's nothing compared to the choir, the usher board, the deacon board. And I always say that. And people always say, "How do you – ? What do you – ?" You run a volunteer organization, and you run it on persuasion. You run it on convincing people to do things. And in politics, it's the same thing. You've got to convince people to vote for you. You've got to convince even leaders, people who are your equal, why you ought to be elected to Steering and Policy.

BOND: So this is a transference of skills learned in your ministerial function, to this function.

GRAY: Exactly.

BOND: And even though the settings are different, and the constituencies are different, it's the same skill.

GRAY: I think so. I think it's the same skill set.

BOND: But it also gives you an opportunity to reach out to white members of Congress, who are the overwhelming majority, in ways that might not have come to your black colleagues.

GRAY: I think I had some experiences that made it different for me. One, I came from a very strong family background where I was taught, even when I was living in the South and had to ride in the back of the bus, and had to drink from the colored water fountain, and couldn't go to, you know, a white school, that I was as good, if not better than they were. And I had that drummed into me. I mean, there was no psychological damage that often happens. I mean, I had parents and grandparents who did that. And then, growing up in the atmosphere I did, which is an upper middle-class family, I had examples of black excellence, from preachers, to teachers, to doctors, to lawyers. I mean, on the block I grow up in, I had Hobson Reynolds across the street who was head of the Elks. Two doors down was Cecil B. Moore, who later became a firebrand city councilman, led the NAACP in Philadelphia. Two doors the other way was Frederick Massiah, the great black architect from the West Indies, who had done so much in Philadelphia, and most people never knew that he was black. So I mean – around the corner was Raymond Pace Alexander and Sadie Alexander. Sadie Alexander was the first woman in America to get a Ph.D. in economics. Not black woman, first woman. I mean, these were the kind of examples I had.

Now on the same block you had welfare recipients, you had truck drivers, you know, because we didn't have that ability to move into "homogenous" neighborhoods, because of what I call the discrimination of the North, you know, all the black folk lived in Harlem, okay. They all lived in North Philly. So, I had that. And then secondly, I grew up in an environment that not only taught me that I was as good as anybody else, but you could do anything, and that you had to try, and if you didn't – but I also went to, at one point, a couple of institutions that were predominantly white, the middle school and the college. Where, yeah, I had some bad experiences. Sure, I had some scarring experiences. I could tell you all about them. But the fact of the matter is, I also came away stronger, and believing what my parents taught me.

So, when some of my black colleagues in the freshman class, we had a caucus like the night before, and they said, "Bill, you don't have the votes, man. You're going to get embarrassed." And I said, "No, I think I'm going to win. I think I can do it." And then the next morning we were to have another little caucus before the vote, and we had a breakfast meeting. I put on a breakfast for all the freshman, my little old last campaign thing. And as they were leaving, the campaign manager for one of the candidates, who was perceived at least by me to be the strongest candidate, his campaign manager – who is now a U.S. Senator, but was in my class – came over and said, "Bill, why don't you pull out, and maybe we can work a deal where you become the president of the class, and my guy become Steering and Policy." He said, "What do you think?" And I said, "No, I'm not going to do that." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because you just told me I'm going to win."

BOND: And you did.

GRAY: And we left there, went to Rayburn, and had the vote, and it was the low person off. And I managed not to be the low person on each one of the ballots until finally it was myself and Buddy Leach from Louisiana. And I had developed a little technique – which now has become standard operating procedure, I'm told, in the House of Representatives – which was, you know, "Mr. Bond, if you can't vote for me because you're committed to Geraldine Ferraro, if Geraldine Ferraro is not in the race, could I have your second vote?" And so, every time one of the others dropped off – Geraldine Ferraro, Peter Peyser, Tony Coelho – I had commitments from their voters, that they'd vote for me. Of course, they never thought that possibility was going to ever occur. And so, in the final vote, I won overwhelming.

BOND: And they kept their word?

GRAY: And they kept their word, because if you don't keep your word, that's death in the political arena, as you know.