Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: United Front

BOND: And so the different political tendencies didn't upset anyone, you were willing to join in a popular front, a common front, with anyone.

HEIGHT: Yes. This was the day of the United Front. And it was a day when, I think, we said, "Because we do not absorb each other's philosophies, but we are joined together on one purpose. These are the things we're working on." We worked to get people to vote. We worked with Adam Clayton Powell to desegregate 125th Street and to open up jobs. We worked with A. Philip Randolph, who would say that you had to learn how to be concerned about what working people -- so that I think I learned a lot first-hand about labor relations and about, you know, social justice and economic opportunity from the activities we were doing. And that's why I've often said that by the time I was twenty-five, I already had shaped my life's work. I knew where I wanted to go.

BOND: Now, we've been talking about the things you did in sort of an extracurricular activity. Was there anything you learned in school, in the classroom, that influenced your life?

HEIGHT: Well, I always in the -- I started out with entering the field of medicine. But I -- when I was going to go to Barnard College, and I was rejected there on a quota after I had been accepted. That was --

BOND: They told you they already had two.

HEIGHT: Yes, they had two Negro students, Belle Tobias and Vera Joseph. And so they said I could wait a year and come in when one of them graduated. So I went on to New York University. And so I shifted my interests and I began to study more in -- I took some work in religion, but also in the social sciences.

One of the things that was valuable to me were -- was that I had assignments to work in communities that were, you know, deprived. And when I say the Depression, I mean that was a time when no one had very much. And I had the opportunity to work in the Brownsville Community Centers as a part of my schooling. And I think the other thing I would have to say is that it was in these groups that I belonged to, the United Christian Youth Movement, where we exposed ourselves -- we were exposed to people like Harold Laski and a number of them, who had a social philosophy, who were, I guess you would call them, in many respects, they were social gospel. So that I was getting -- I was doing one kind of study in the daytime and another one on the weekend and evening in these small groups. Because we didn't just go and meet. We had -- we took time, we studied, we read, and even when Kenneth Clark wrote Youth in the Ghetto, some of us were part of his studies of what he was doing right there in the community.

BOND: Now, I get the picture that NYU is just ferment of political action of all kinds; big arguments between Marxists, Socialists, Democrats, and so on. Is that a fair picture?

HEIGHT: That's a fair picture.

BOND: Just a community just bubbling up with ideas and arguments.

HEIGHT: And differences. And you had to learn to know what you stood for. You had to be able to stand up for it, and I found that many a time. And you had people who wanted you to -- they were trying to indoctrinate. But I think it was good for me that I had a certain amount of grounding, but also that it wasn't just emotional, that we were studying. We knew the difference between dialectic materialism and some other philosophies. It was a rich life.

Though we were poor in dollars, I think it was rich in that experience. And I often say to young people today who ask me, "How do we get included?" And I say we have to be like Madame Walker did. She said she got started by giving herself a start. And I think you have to give yourself a start by saying, "What's going on? What's happening to people?" When we saw lynching, when we heard about it, when people like Thurgood Marshall and Walter White and Charles Houston would come into our little groups and tell us things that were happening, we got into action. Nobody had to tell us. That was enough.

BOND: You're describing a world which I'm not sure could exist today.

HEIGHT: No, it doesn't.

BOND: This combination of the place where you were, the depression around you, the ferment in Harlem, agitation against lynching and all these social ills, I don't believe that could occur today.

HEIGHT: No, it's a totally different climate. And that's why I have -- but I find myself finding it hard not to appreciate fully the difference. I say all the time, I don't know what I would do if I were in today's society and seventeen. The only thing I believe I would do, because of the fact that from my childhood I had an interest in things that were going about me -- as an eleven-year-old I helped to integrate my little community center -- so that I always had a sense of driving to try to make things better.

But I don't know, because I go through Harlem now and I just say, "Well, this is a very different Harlem from what I grew up in." Harlem, when I grew up, it was poor but rich. There we had Duke Ellington, we had Sy Oliver, we had all the things that were happening. And there was a way in which people felt the need of each other, and there was -- I think in today's society, it's much more individualistic. You know, young people want to know quickly, "What am I going to get out of it?" And somehow or other, the conditions under which we were living and our own searching for more meaning to our lives meant that for us it was a matter of saying, "What can we do? How can we work to it?" We were more "we" oriented than I see that we are today.