Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Treatment in Birmingham Jail

HRABOWSKI: It took me years to get over the hatred that I felt because we got to the jail, the place, and they were awful to us there. And they put us in with the bad boys. We were not bad boys. You know, bad boys are the ones that have the knives. We don’t have any knives. We don’t cut people and things like that. And they encouraged, they encouraged a bad experience for us.

BOND: How’d the bad boys treat you?

HRABOWSKI: It was not good, except I was very -- I was using every kind of way I could to keep up with my kids because I had these kids and everybody was crying for their mama -- “I want my mama,” you know, and I’m feeling the same thing and trying to be a big boy. And they had Bibles there, I remember that. And I would read the Bible a lot. Any time it would get really tough and somebody would say they were going to -- or begin to do something to my children, I’d start reading aloud -- “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Everybody respects the Bible, and I got that, so I could -- and I would have my kids singing songs. They’d leave them alone doing that. And I was constantly, especially with those who were really scared, and trying to keep one or two who were ready to fight from getting into that, but it was -- you think about an unsupervised situation with children with guards who were clearly with different points of view, I’m sure, but clearly not giving us support. It was not good.

BOND: And these other inmates who are clearly rough, rough guys --

HRABOWSKI: And it was not good. It was not good. And -- but I will tell you this, from all of that, because I’ve blocked it out for a long time. I really did. What it taught me, more than anything else, was that children can make decisions at an early age to affect the rest of their lives and that we sometimes assume that children really can’t think well, but a twelve-year-old, an eight-year-old, can think much more clearly than we think. They need teaching and training, but I’m saying they can really appreciate the difference between right and wrong and can make decisions and so it helped me to appreciate the need to give respect to students, whether they are twenty or twelve, and not treat them like little people but rather as thinkers. The more you can elevate people by just giving them that support and expecting more from them, whether in mathematics or in thinking about life, the more they’ll come up to the occasion.