Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Early Development

BOND: Earlier on, you saw Mary Terrell picketing Woolworth's here in the District of Columbia, and you described it as a consciousness-raising moment. What did that -- ?

NORTON: For a little kid, yes.

BOND: What did you take away from seeing her do that? Did you know she was a noted figure when you saw her?

NORTON: No, indeed. No, indeed. The notion of somebody picketing at all in the '50s during the -- when there was no social action -- was itself, particularly for a kid, an event that made a lasting impression. And then you join that with what we had always learned, and we were always pressing for, which was to live in a society where we would be treated as equals. Then, of course, her act seemed, to me, nothing short of revolutionary. No, she didn't get arrested, she just picketed, but that was so rare in the 1950s and it was such a wonderful example to see somebody of her age picketing about something we all felt deeply about and had not ourselves done. That's why when the civil rights movement broke out, somebody like me, was of an age, who was really ready for it.

BOND: Not only ready for it, but ready to take a kind of leadership position in it. In high school and middle school, not only are you academically successful, but you're active socially. You're community service, you're in lots of clubs, you're president of some clubs. Those are leadership positions. Can you say that that's a beginning of your leadership in the broad sense? That's the beginning of your thinking that "I can run this, I can be in charge of this, I can lead this"?

NORTON: I do believe, though, that if you want to trace back where your sense of leadership comes from and it is true that -- well, I trace it all the way back to my grandmother who in a sense gives you leadership.

BOND: But I'm talking about the exercise of leadership. Your grandmother gives you the idea?

NORTON: Well, no, she gave me more than the exercise of it because she expected me to do it. She expected me to do -- remember, I'm supposed to be the leader of these three girls. "Good luck" is all I can say on that, but there was a clear expectation that I would, in fact, if not be a leader, do things at a level of excellence and that probably for her, since some of this came from my being the first child, the leadership child, all of that, it seems to me, is wrapped up in the same set of ideas and, yes, expectations she gave me. All right.

All right, by the time you go to elementary school and junior high and the rest, yes, leadership becomes more natural and you look for ways to lead and there's no question that I did that. Although there was a sense of modesty that we were brought up with, that, you know -- the kinds of things that people do today would have been considered really quite brazen. You know, I wanted to lead, but I didn't want to get out there and look like I was greedy for leadership. And I thought that that would've been considered inelegant and people wouldn't like that, so the point was to somehow deal with your desire to lead within a context that made it acceptable to yourself and to everyone else. And I remember -- I distinctly remember feeling that. But I must say, I think it's very important to say that there are -- should I say, most people -- people who may be looking at us -- will not have had the kind of leadership head start that somebody like me had, that is to say, almost from the cradle being expected to, as it were, lead and, yes, having been imbued with that sense that leadership was possible, reaching out to lead at a very young age.

The reason I'm reluctant to think that that is a model is that I think many people, especially women, especially girls, especially many black people, may not have found themselves in an environment where leadership was expected or possible. And so the question for them may be, "How do I make this happen when in fact I didn't have enough family that in fact encouraged it?" And "How do I make this happen when in school I wasn't a natural leader and yet I felt that I could lead?" And that's why I think leadership is very individual, that you can feel it at any moment. There are many women, for example. By the time feminism came, the notion of women in leadership positions was second nature to me. I mean, but I recognize that that was not the case for the average woman, that reading The Second Sex did have an effect upon millions of women, that Harriet Tubman was not in fact the kind of role model that made everybody want to go out and be a leader. So that I do think people have to understand, have to come to grips with the fact that leadership can in fact become possible for you based on your own individual instincts and experiences, and that it would be a mistake to think you are born to leadership.