Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of the Black Family

BOND: But how did that become a part of your vision when it did? I mean, the issue was out there and suddenly -- well, maybe not even suddenly, but anyway, it becomes an issue, the family and the status of the family, the deterioration of family. How does that come to you? How does that come into your consciousness?

NORTON: I remember exactly how it came to me. I was -- Vernon Jordan invited -- I go back to in preparing speeches and things and this comes from [A. Leon] Higginbotham, always looking for facts that people don't know, that help you then make a point that they might be interested in, as opposed to simply going at speeches rhetorically. And I remember just being dumbfounded by the fact that -- this was in the early '70s -- just coming upon some statistical material that said a third of children were born, were being raised by single mothers. Now, I'm sure many of these mothers had been married. I'm talking about never-married women when I say 70 percent today. But that was astounding to me. I had never thought about it.

I think it was about 1974, Vernon Jordan invited me to give the keynote speech at the Urban League final dinner where you had this large crowd of people. And for the life of me, I think I was then Human Rights Commissioner of New York City so I think it may have had to do with the fact that that might have been one of those U.N. Year of the Woman? I believe that may have been, although that's not how he said it. And, of course, I could speak on anything.

So, I said, "What do I do if I have all these black people, 3,000 or something in the room, what do I speak about?" I didn't think I should give them a lesson in feminism. Black women were beginning to make the point about how we were both black and female, and you better come to understand it. This kept in my brain about this one-third, so how to approach it? And this also may go to the questions you asked earlier about leadership. This was about a little over ten years after the Moynihan Report and in a real sense, what had silenced the issue, I thought, was the messenger. Because it seemed to me that the messenger must have had the message right, but it didn't lie in his mouth and I had this sense of probably the reason it silenced it because we were in the middle of civil rights movement. And we were trying to get laws on the books and get them enforced and here somebody comes up talking about your mama, as they say. You all better talk about whether you're going to --

BOND: They didn't want to hear it.

NORTON: Right, they didn't want to hear it. And particularly from a white man and I've since had many conversations with Moynihan, but it struck me as I had to think about what to speak about at the convention that "the fault lies with people like you, Eleanor. If you don't think Moynihan should have said it, or if he wasn't the right messenger, do you have the nerve to say it?" And you know what, I didn't want to go in there and have people put me out, so how do I do this?


BOND: Yes.

NORTON: So I decided to write this speech in the form of a love letter from a black woman to a black man. It had all the statistics in it, but it had all of the forlorn rhetoric about how together, whether it was slavery where people -- people's marriages. It was not until 18- -- I don't think this was in the speech -- but it was not until 1866 that the Congress said marriages between black people are now recognized. So even if you haven't had a legal marriage, that is recognized. Now, I mean, that's just how deep was this country's foot in the black family's trials, and yet those families had somehow brought us through.

Essentially, that was the theme of the speech, how the families brought us through, what the statistics were now, but talking about what had really brought us through was him and me -- black man, black woman. And all I can tell you, Julian, is at the end of that speech it was as if they were carrying me out of the room on their shoulders. It was a real lesson in leadership. It was as if -- "Thank God somebody has said it who is one of us." And people realized it --

BOND: I was going to say, isn't it that people said when Moynihan said it, "I thought it might be true, but I didn't want to hear it because he was saying it and I didn't like the way he said it"?

NORTON: Right.