Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Mother

BOND: Now, it's no doubt from reading your biography that your parents, your mother, had an enormous effect on your life. How did your parents affect you when you were a kid and later on?

HEIGHT: Well, I think, for one thing, both of my parents were very active in organizations, and I think that's one of the reasons that I have understood the value of organization. But I think my mother was especially helpful to me because she helped me to realize, though I was a good student, I could not just strut around and be proud. That -- she made me understand that I was not in competition with anybody but myself. And so it has made me -- I've had all my life a feeling from that of appreciation of my responsibility to other people.

And I think the other thing is, even in our little community, she helped to prepare me for a world and a country in which there was discrimination. She always said to me, "Hold yourself together. You take care of your -- think your way through." And that has been a very important thing to me. I have never felt the need to push to the head of the crowd, but she helped me to realize that -- because I was always either first or second in my classes, and she would say to me, you know, "What are you doing to help others?"

BOND: I remember a story about a boy who couldn't remember his recitation, and you could remember yours.

HEIGHT: Yes. He had always a short speech, and our pastor's wife reported me because she told my mother that I was usually a good girl, but that I laughed all through this program. And I told my mother, I said, "Here was Herbert, he was trying to make the speech, and he kept saying, 'He is risen, He is risen.' Couldn't remember that it was 'from the dead.' " And I thought that was the funniest thing. And so she suggested -- and I said, "And I have my speech" -- I had one, you know, yard long -- and I said, "And I knew it."

And so she said to me, "Well, perhaps if that's so funny to you, maybe you don't need to be in it." Well, of course, that was like cutting my throat. And she said, "But if you're going to be there, you have to learn you have to help the others, and you could, say, help him with his speech and not laugh at him for what he can't do. But you have to help him." That meant that I turned out to be the official monitor, prompter, and every child would pass their speech to me, and as they went up, I would sit there, and by the time we came to the program, I knew all the speeches.

But what it did for me -- it let me understand, she said, "If you can do yours so much better, then you help him get his done." And that's been a part of my very -- it's even in my bones, I think.