Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Community in Birmingham

HRABOWSKI: Make no mistake about it. Dr. King and all the people who were involved in that movement, like one Julian Bond and the others, all those young educated people who came to our city who were articulate and eloquent and sincere and rebellious enough to say, "Life can be very different from this, very different from this." That was another world opening up.

Now, I will say this. There were people who were impressed but also frightened. Very frightened. I mean, middle class people particularly, not because they weren’t proud of all these young smart people of color -- colored people -- but -- from other places -- but they didn’t know what it would mean in terms of the repercussions because the thought was, they’re going to leave here.

BOND: And we’ll still be here.

HRABOWSKI: Yes, we’ll still be here, and will we still have our houses, will we still have our jobs, so there was all of that. I mean, everybody today can act as if, oh, Dr. King was wonderful and all that, but there were a lot of people who were saying this man is getting above himself. You know, because of the mindset, if you get my point.

BOND: What about people who were not famous and well known like the people you’re talking about now, but people in your neighborhood, not your family, not your teachers, but were there people like that?

HRABOWSKI: Oh, yeah. Mr. McCarthy was one of the principals around the corner whose daughter, Cheryl McCarthy, is in -- works for one of the New York papers now. My piano teacher, who became a dean at Alabama A&M, was incredible because she was teaching me discipline and getting me to understand that just because I liked math I shouldn’t think I shouldn’t be able to do music, you know. So she was pushing me to practice, for example. But also I would say neighbors up and down the street were influential because they treated me as if I were their own and would talk to me, would punish me, would praise me, would feed me. I was always going to somebody’s house to eat. I love to eat. And so if I smelled a pie or something else, I’d say, “What you got in there?” “Come on in, Freeman.” So there was that village and so those people -- it was a protected environment and there were a number of people -- everybody was hard working, fine Christian people and I just think of all the neighbors in that area.

I will say my math teacher in my school, Mr. Hill, was also -- and Mr. Whitehead was the chemistry teacher and he was great. He was young and smart. I think he’s still teaching in Atlanta now and he was impressed that I’d been to Massachusetts and had had the chemistry before so he’d use me to kind of help with the work and it was great to have a chance to work with children who may not have had as strong a background, but he was excellent. Really was.

BOND: What do you remember about particular events, either historical like the Brown decision which happens at a young, young age for you, or personal like your participation in the Birmingham Children’s March? How did these affect your notions of American society, not just the Birmingham, the segregated Birmingham world of your youth, but the larger world? How did they affect that?

HRABOWSKI: You know, the larger world for me was the other big middle class community in Birmingham. It was Tannersville and Smithville. Smithville was where Angela Davis lived and her folks, you see. And those were the two worlds I knew, so the larger world, it was nothing about whites. I mean, that was another universe. That may as well have been Mars. I mean, you’d see things downtown, but you didn’t even think that they were connected in any way. I did always wonder what it would be like to be in class with white children because we were being told in so many different ways through TV and the media that we were not as good and I wanted to show I could do as well as anybody else, and so I was thinking about that. I really was, because we saw the hand-me-down books and we saw that our schools were not as good. Didn’t have the money, quite frankly. We saw that our teachers cared a great deal, but -- and so the larger world was still very remote to me. It never occurred to me that I would be sitting in class with white kids or that I might be president of a predominantly white university.