Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Philosophy

BOND: Someone suggested your philosophy could be described as a sociological philosophy, and that's to say that you believe people live in larger social and cultural structures that influence how they think and live, and that they can educate themselves and others to become accountable for changing the larger patterns in which they live.

NORTON: Well, I would say, yeah, I think you first have to be critical of the larger structure in which you live and break out of it to have some objectivity about it.

BOND: How do you come to the criticism? If you're living in a socio-cultural structure that's all about you?

NORTON: Now, that's a trap.

BOND: Yes. How do you become a critic of it?

NORTON: Well, for me, for example, I regard a turning point in my life going away not to the schools that I had been most inclined to go away to, but to Antioch College.

BOND: Yes, it seems to me that is a departure for many Dunbar graduates, although they have their choice of schools all over the country, I imagine many of them go to the historically black colleges.

NORTON: Well, frankly, they went more to the Ivy League. At least at the top of our class, that's where people would've been inclined to go and if they were going to an HBCU, it would've been Howard. We regarded that as a flagship of black America. In fact, many went there.

BOND: Antioch is off the beaten path for Dunbar graduates.

NORTON: Yes, and I went to Antioch in no small part because I believed there was a larger world. I had read E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeoisie. It really electrified me. Here I was -- Dunbar and Banneker, my junior high school, were very socially stratified. You didn't have to take a test to go to Dunbar. You went to Banneker or Dunbar. Anybody could go to Dunbar. Banneker was where you lived and so people came from a very large section. It was very stratified by aptitude in a way that people don't allow today. Well, they do allow it, actually, but I'm literally we knew exactly what seventy-six and seventy-five and there was no shame to it. But the smartest kids, you knew which they were in, and which the kids who were not as smart were in. As is always the case, where aptitude follows class, these classes also tended to have many -- not all -- but many of those from the African-American community who had had the most advantages.

My parents who had gone. I remember my father saying he was in the first grade. I really wonder what that was. When I was in the first grade, because he was going to law school and going to Terrell Law School, at that, at night, and my mother who had gone to Normal School had to go back to school to become a teacher here, but in this same class there would have been the children of that age of Howard University professors or doctors or, as they say, lawyers and Indian chiefs. This world, because it was a world unto itself, was and should have been, subject to great criticism. And what I found really electrically amazing was the criticism from inside of it --

BOND: Frazier's criticism.

NORTON: Of Frazier's criticism, and the notion of going to a school where the atmosphere was intensely intellectual and intensely social and it allowed you to go out in the world to work. Well, that was the ballgame. I believed I lived in too small a world. I believe the world reinforced wonderful things and very bad things. And the very bad things were, for example, to take from white society a sense that materialism was the be all, end all. Once you got that, you didn't much more. An example of the good things I took from it was the sense of civil rights consciousness that I got from the entire black community at a very early age.

BOND: So it must've been a big jump to go from Dunbar to Antioch, not an intellectual jump as much just a cultural jump.

NORTON: Oh, it was.

BOND: An enormous shift.

NORTON: Very much. You go into the cafeteria. If you've only gone to school with black people and it's in the mid-'50s and you go into the cafeteria and you're the only black person there, hey, you're conscious of that notion.