Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Development

BOND: Now you've been a leader all of your adult life, and people who study leadership say that it comes about in three different ways. Great people arise, and carry out leadership functions. Movements come along, and then out of those movements come leaders. And then, unpredictable events makes leaders appropriate for the particular time. Now, where do you fit here?

GRAY: I don't know. I'm flattered that anybody thinks I'm a great leader.

BOND: Many people think you're a great leader.

GRAY: I just think of myself as, you know, a servant, who is, you know, trying to do some things, trying to pay some rent. Gee, I don't know. I mean, as I look back on it, I'd probably say – yeah, I learned some early leadership lessons and skills from my childhood. My father, who was a black college president at twenty-five, who had a Ph.D. at age twenty-four, who had a master's degree at age twenty, and was a college professor at age twenty-one. Yeah, I learned something there. I learned it from my grandparents. I learned it from my mother. I learned it from a lot of role models who passed in front of me, and showed – demonstrated what excellence was about, and believing that you could do anything. Now I don't know which category that falls into. But I would also say I came along at a time. Even though I was not involved in the Civil Rights movement, in terms of marching in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery –

BOND: But it was all around you.

GRAY: It was all around me, and in fact, I remember wanting to quit Franklin & Marshall to go down and join the Freedom Riders and so forth, and Martin Luther King said to me, "Don't." And I remember him saying, "We're going to need you for later. Finish your education. We've got enough folk." And he urged me to finish my education at Franklin & Marshall. And so, I think that historic period, the '60s, when there was so much struggle by people of good will, not just black people, but also white people of all faiths, denominations and colors, fighting to bring about a new and beloved community, also heavily influenced me, and gave me a real passion for some of the issues. And then, also maybe I was in the right place at the right time, you know, in Congress, to do some of the things I did. You know, being chairman of the Budget committee, when you ask people for support of your sanction bill in South Africa, it's a lot different, then when you're just an ordinary member saying, "I want support." They've got things that they care about that you control. And as one person on Tip O'Neill's staff once said to me, he said, "Bill, sanctions took off as a legislative agenda, because it was not being carried by an individual member – " Because there have been other members who cared deeply about apartheid – Curtis Collins, Ron Dillion. But this staff person said, "You're going to win this issue, because now it's being carried by someone who is chairman of a major committee, and nobody wants to offend the chairman."

BOND: But you got to be chairman because you had exercised these leadership attributes and skills. Somebody once said that leadership is the ability to convince people against their own ideas. So someone who is going to vote for Geraldine Ferraro says, "Oh no, I'm going to vote for Bill Gray." Somebody who doesn't want to support sanctions says, "Oh, I'm going to do it because he's chairman and because I think it's a good idea." How did you get to the point, or can you say, where you could convince people against their own ideas, to adopt ideas that are yours, rather than the ideas they came to when you approached them?

GRAY: Well, a preacher, every Sunday, is trying to convince people not to do certain things and to do other things. And often the certain things the flesh wants to do. And so, I would probably attribute that skill going back to my ministry, talking to people. And so, sure, I would talk to a congressman and say, "Will you give me your vote, so I can be the chairman of the Budget committee?" And knowing that they're from California, and that they're already committed to Leon Panetta, who I ran against. And I'd say, "Well, look. Here's why I'm a good choice." And then you also have to recognize that, hey, don't ask them to do something that's going to be unethical, break his promise. So I would say, "Can I get your vote if so and so is not in the race?" And I'm told that that was unusual, that no one had ever done that consistently before. They would just tend to get mad with a person and walk away and say, "You're not going to vote for me. Well then, okay, bye." And you know, my viewpoint as a minister, is you've got to deal with people all the time, and you know, I can oppose you, I can fight against your ideas vigorously and tough today, but I also understand that tomorrow you and I may agree on something, and we might find common ground and work on that. And probably that comes out of my ministry, too.

BOND: As important as education is, and the work that you do at the College Fund is, aside from education, what's required, what's needed, to create additional leaders, to prepare additional leaders?

GRAY: I think there are a lot of things that go into creating leadership. You have to have examples that people see early on in life. So, mentoring, good examples, for young people to look at, and learn from, and to role model. Secondly, you need education. I've been blessed – I had an excellent education. I had parents who insisted upon it. I had a mother who didn't buy a new dress for five years so that she could send my sister and I to some of the best schools in America, the sacrifice. I also had people who helped me. One of the things that is important for leadership, is you've got to have people who help you at key points in your life. And I can go back and name them. A minister named D.C. Rice, who was the minister of the church at Union Baptist Church for twenty-two years, who turned that church over to me, who sat every Sunday, not on the pulpit, but out in the pews, and who was my guide and counselor for the first three or four years of my ministry. Amazing. I think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent time with me, and shared insights, and just gave advice like, "No, I don't need you to come down and be a part of the movement. I need you to get your education, and here's why." People like that guy Ray Lederer, who went out of his way and told me something that he didn't have to tell me. But if he hadn't told me, I would have run for President [of the freshman class], okay?

There are people all along the way in life who open doors for you, and anybody who is a leader, or that you may call a leader, doesn't get there by themselves. There are a lot of people who helped to make them, going back as a child, role model, mentoring, training, okay, professors, Sidney Wise at Franklin & Marshall who got me that political experience as an intern. And then later, people in life, who just help you. So, I think those are the components, and if you listen, if you learn – and then I think, I think there's something else, and I get this out of my faith. You've got to have a passion for something. My passion has been my ministry, and a ministry that is broader than just preaching and visiting the sick, a ministry that was involved in changing the structures of social justice. Where did I get that from? Again – a father, from other ministers, some of whom I've named here. And that's been my passion. And so if you want to understand Bill Gray, understand first of all, he's a Baptist preacher. Secondly, he was a college professor at five universities. He ran for public office, did well, left that, and now heads an educational charity that raises $170 million a year to provide financial aid to historically black colleges, and to black young people to get an education. But where does that come from? From my faith and from my ministry. That's my love, that's my passion.

BOND: Bill Gray, thank you.