Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of AME Church

BOND: In some ways, you’re a different mix of the kind of person who sat across from me in these series of interviews we’ve done, and one thing that makes you different isn’t gender necessarily, but it’s being in the AME Church which is out of the mainstream — well, not out of the mainstream, but you know what I mean. The Baptists are predominant and so large, so it’s the AME Church, immigrant, the child of immigrants and the interest in this profession which not everyone follows and the feeling that you’ve received from those around you that you can do these thing and I wonder, can you parse those? Is one dominant, one more powerful than the others?

IFILL: The AME Church is significant because it was a church — we’re very wedded to the history of the church. The church, formed by freed slaves who tried to worship in the Methodist Episcopal, a white Methodist Episcopal Church and were pulled off their knees. The idea that Richard Allen walked out of that church, walked to his blacksmith shop and started his own denomination which is now around the world, was a very empowering idea. You couldn’t grow up with knowing that history without thinking, without saying — and then say, “Oh, I can’t do it.” You were part of a tradition, a historic tradition and a faith tradition that was about saying, “I can do it.”

BOND: It also strikes me as a fighting church.

IFILL: It is.

BOND: As opposed to the others. Not that the others never fight, but AMEs always fight.

IFILL: It’s a very political church and I first learned politics and learned to love politics in the AME Church because we have an Episcopal form of government which means we have elected bishops and the politics in the AME Church was as political as anything I’ve covered in national life and I learned what that was like and what trade-offs were like and what bartering for votes was like and what old-fashioned campaigns were like. The quadrennial general conferences of the AME Church weren’t that far different from the quadrennial Democratic and Republican national conventions I’ve covered, so I got an appreciation for politics. I also got an appreciation for the connection between what politics is and what even faith is and what actual action is and so it made sense to me that there was a continuum among all these things and that my life was directly affected. I couldn’t say, “Oh, civil rights, that’s nice but it has nothing to do with me.” I was always fairly clear it had a direct connection in what I could do. And so all of these things together probably made me who I was and because we got the newspaper in our house every day. We watched the news every night. We were very clear that the marches against the Vietnam War and national assassinations and moments of grieving, that those came right in our living room. The first time I ever saw my father cry was when John F. Kennedy died. It felt very real to us and so that’s what brought me — my — that nurtured my interest in current events and it nurtured my interest in seeing if I could find a way to write about it, to actually be in the front row and ask those questions.

BOND: I don’t want to dwell on the church too much, but I also think that the AME Church is a church which just doesn’t fight among the members, but fights for rights, fights for justice —

IFILL: Fights for things.

BOND: — fights for things. Is that right?

IFILL: The church I’m a member of here in Washington, D.C. — Frederick Douglass sat in the pews there. It matters that Rosa Parks was an AME to us. We weren’t told just to sit quietly and wait for the world to get better. You were supposed to have an act — there was a connection. We looked at Jesus as someone who was an activist, not just someone who was a religious figure, and that made a big difference.

BOND: Your father’s engagement as a civil rights activist, how did he communicate this to the children? How does he let you know what he’s doing and why he’s doing it?

IFILL: Well, he had a pulpit.

BOND: Yes, I understand.

IFILL: And so, having a pulpit makes it very easy to communicate not only to your children but to everyone. He didn’t hesitate to put on his dashiki and wear it in the pulpit. He didn’t hesitate to get involved. I remember when we lived in central Pennsylvania outside of Harrisburg in a food co-op program that was founded for and by African Americans in the downtown. He brought his activities home and talked about it and preached about it from the pulpit and we had no choice but to listen, so after a while, it kind of sank in.