Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Vision, Philosophy, and Style

BOND: Well, Mr. Hill, can you see any difference as you look back over your career between a vision you had, and a philosophy for carrying out that vision, and the style in which that vision was carried out? Are these different things? Are they the same things?

HILL: Well, I don't know that I ever thought about in those categories. But, you see, I was inspired by Charlie Houston as to direction we should take and followed his direction, but so far as being determined to do something myself, that came just naturally, I guess. And also from my early days, I developed a good work ethic, and my mother [was always] improving it along those lines. I mean, as a matter of fact during World War II – I mean, World War I – I was ten years old. I used to get up at three o'clock in the morning. They dressed me well -- it was my idea – they dressed me well and I had to go get my papers as they come off the press, and sell newspapers in time to go to Sunday School. So [I] always had a job when I was in school – unless I was out for some athletic team, I played football and played basketball.

BOND: But did you always think from this moment – you told me about a few moments ago that you read the Constitution and you read these law cases -- when did the idea come to you that you would be involved in civil rights?

HILL: Well, I didn't think in terms of civil rights. All I thought about was that the Court was wrong and that some lawyers should take a case up there, back up there, and convince them they were wrong.

BOND: Well, I guess the question I want to ask is, when did you understand that race was an issue that you were going to spend your life arguing about?

HILL: Well, I didn't -- it never, that never -- that was never my idea. See, there's no way to deny race when I was coming along, 'cause everything had racial overtones. We were fourth-class citizens most of the time. Occasionally we get bumped up to third class, but from time Plessy was enacted and from time they removed troops from the South, we were fourth-class citizens. These people come here and talk about their immigrant parents, who come here with nothing, they -- this was -- from the time they walked across the street from Ellis Island, if they came into New York, they had a higher status than most Negros.

BOND: But how did you decide that you were going to do something about this?

HILL: What'd I say? When you read the action of Congress after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and [how] the Congress had fortified it with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, [you see that] the Congress had given us all the rights, civil rights that white people had. And it was the Supreme Court that had taken them away from us. So, it seemed to me that the only thing to do was go back to Supreme Court, point out to them that they were wrong, and get our rights restored.

BOND: Now, I'll bet that other young men and women were reading the Constitution the same time you were, but most of them didn't decide to do anything about it.

HILL: Well, that might be true, I don't know. But anyway, some did.

BOND: Yeah, some did.

HILL: There was another boy in our class named Sweet. I don't know what happened to him, but he had his -- he always used to be in that case or not – his daddy – his brother was a doctor in Detroit, and they bought a house in what was called "these changing neighborhoods."

BOND: That's right, Clarence Darrow.

HILL: And the white folks told him to get out or they were going to remove him, and the mob came the night that they said they were going to be there, and meantime a lot of his friends in the house with him. The mob shot at the house and somebody in the house shot back at the mob and killed one of them, and they charged Dr. [Ossian] Sweet with the murder. And NAACP got Clarence Darrow to represent him, and he was acquitted. He never should have been indicted, as far as I could have see , because they didn't have evidence as to who shot the shot. But as I say, everything was segregated, and we knew it was wrong, they knew it was wrong. Just didn't seem like [I was] doing any great deal so far as being a civil rights advocator and all that -- didn't appear to me at that time.

BOND: But still not everybody did it. Only a few people did it.

HILL: Well, only a few people, that's right. But there were a number of -- your daddy was one?

BOND: Yes.

HILL: He did a whole lot.

BOND: Yes, he did some of the research for the Brown case, some of the historical research.

HILL: Yeah, well, he was doing -- he was active even before -- was he at Howard for a while?

BOND: No. No, at Lincoln.

HILL: I know he was at Lincoln, but I'm talking about before he went to Lincoln. I thought he was at Howard for a few years before I got there.