Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Travel

BOND: Let me shift gears a little bit here. One thing I noted in looking at your life is what seems to me to be a fairly large amount of international travel for someone of your time and place. Almost immediately after leaving college, you're overseas. What did these trips mean to you?

HEIGHT: Well, it certainly meant to me that when I was twenty-three, I was the president -- the vice president of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America. And there was a conference in England, and I was one of the ten young Americans, two of whom were African American -- two of us -- sent to the World Conference of the Churches in England. Well, to be chaperoned and cared for by Dr. Benjamin Mays and his wife, to be exposed to the greatest leaders in all branches of Christendom, to be -- to hear Dr. [Robert] Tawney teach about equality and what equality meant, to lift that out of what I had learned in my other things, even in my oratorical contests, and to have that kind of exposure, meant that I had -- it gave me an ecumenical experience that has made a difference in my whole life. I don't have any problem with dealing with people of difference. In fact, I love it. But I think I learned so much there, and also about issues like war and peace. In the Oxford meetings, I chose the economic order, and so that's where I studied inequality. But when we listened to all the broad speeches, the Reinhold Niebuhrs and Paul Tillichs and people like that, it opened up a world to me that I didn't even dream of before. So that to have that kind of experience, and then to return home -- that was in August of 1937 -- and to return home in November 1937 and come to the YWCA, where they had seen me at work in the community, invited me, and there to meet Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt all on the same day, meant to me that I just felt there was a purpose for my life, and that I had so much that was unusual in experience, that I had to feel responsible. And from 1937, for the rest of those two women's lives, they were a great influence in mine.