Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Development

BOND: Let me ask you about ways people characterize making of leaders, how leaders are made. Some people say great people cause great events. Some say movements make great leaders. And some say unpredictable events coming together just create leaders at certain times. Which of these, if any, fits the way you've come to leadership positions?

HOOKS: Well, I may come somewhere in this sense. The events dictate how leadership evolves. If you have a depression, you have a Herbert Hoover and a Franklin Roosevelt. Now, if events make the leader, then Hoover and my -- of course now, you've got to understand I think Roosevelt was the greatest president we've perhaps ever produced in this modern age. And Hoover had a chance to be a great president, and I think he's one of the weakest and saddest, miserable failure. But events were there. So events don't determine the leadership. They simply give an opportunity to exercise leadership. If there had been no depression in '29, I doubt seriously if Roosevelt would have been elected in '32. I think if we had had a chicken in every pot and, you know, the stock market continued upward, that Hoover would have served an eight-year term. But because of the Depression and the perceived image of the people that he did not handle it well. So the Depression events -- if I'm making my point -- determine the leader. But he may fail or succeed. In my judgment, Hoover failed miserably, you know, to deal with it effectively. The Bonus March where he had MacArthur to route the people from -- his failure to understand what happened, even after he left office. I doubt if he ever knew what happened.

When Truman became President, and I've read his life with great interest, I really don't think that anybody since Truman has had to deal with the kind of issues he had to deal with. Some of these presidents have had a glorious time compared with the life and death issues that Truman faced at the time when we could have ended the world with atomic war, when all kinds of issues faced us. And Truman had to make certain decisions. I think that if [Thomas E.] Dewey had been President, we would have had different decisions. So that events give the leader a chance to evolve. And if you serve in certain periods of time when everything is quiet and normal, you may not ever become a great leader.

Calvin Coolidge was president during the time of some so-called normalcy so that, you know, he's just a cipher, a zero with the rim knocked off, or hardened. But when things happen, a civil war, can you imagine what might have happened if Lincoln had not been president? Black people, and I'm sorry to see that, sort of say that he was more concerned about preserving the Union than he was about freeing slaves. Well, you know, that may be true, but look at the obvious answer. Suppose he had said, "Okay, let the Union go. We'll take these Northern states and form, you know, a more perfect union, and you Southern states do what you want." Look how long black folk would have stayed, you know -- even today we may still be in a state of servitude. So that his determination to preserve the Union has other effects. You know, when you make a decision to preserve the Union, that trickles all down the line. Now those who say the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing, yet Frederick Douglass and other black folk begged them to issue it. And when he issued it, they forget that everywhere Grant and Sherman and Thomas and Butler and other Union generals went, black people recognized they were free. Because the minute the Union troops got in control, the Emancipation Proclamation did free them. You know, in spite of the fact that the actual writing did not free them, but the events did. Now having said that, events gave Lincoln the chance to be a great leader. But the same events might have made somebody else a very weak leader. I hope I'm --

BOND: Yes.

HOOKS: It's what's in you that makes the leadership apparent, but it's the events that determine whether you have a chance to use that.

BOND: Is it at all possible to create leaders? That is, to teach people how to exercise leadership, to create circumstances where John or Mary emerges and becomes a leader? Is it possible to create leaders?

HOOKS: I rather doubt it. I think -- put it this way. We talked about that -- I used Hoover and Roosevelt for an example -- certain events happen. Hoover was there for a while and in my judgment did very little with it. Roosevelt came. There was nothing in Roosevelt's background, you know, a patrician, aristocratic, born rich, never exposed to poverty I don't think, as I see it, and yet there was a reach in him that caused him to feel a compassion and a kinship with those who were the farthest down. When he said one-third of the nation's ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed -- I've had a lot of black folk come to me and say, "Well, you know, Roosevelt didn't say much about Negroes." I said, "Yes, he did. When he said one-third ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed, he was talking about us." He didn't have to specify. We were a large part of that class of ill-housed. I lived in that time. No electric lights, no -- leadership, I think, sort of evolves. Opportunities are thrust upon you. What happened to Julian Bond in college? What happened to Marion Barry in college, or to the young lady who has the Children's Fund?

BOND: Marian Wright Edelman.

HOOKS: Marian Wright Edelman. What happened to you that caused you to say, "I'm going to leave this environment and get involved deeply"? What happened to Ben Hooks to leave the FCC where I was sure to be appointed chairperson, and after I became chairman of the FCC, glittering avenues of gold, directorships of major corporations and partnerships in major law firms and multi-million dollar income? What happened? I went to the NAACP for $50,000 a year exchanging one fifty for another. That's all I made, and I went there and subjected myself to all kinds of travail and threats of death, and all. I mean, it's something in me that propelled me. But was I trained to do it? I can't say that I was. I think leaders are born and not made. That innate quality, you know, that's there reacts to circumstances like flowers grow in the proper atmosphere. There may be millions of leaders that never rose to leadership because they were not in the certain position at a certain time. Others who were there who messed it up -- badly.

BOND: Well, Benjamin Hooks, we're glad that you were born. Thank you for doing this.

HOOKS: Thank you, sir.