Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Inspirations: Melba Tolliver

BOND: Now, I’ve read and we’ve talked a little bit here, and I’ve read in things about you, about why — how long you wanted to be a journalist, but was there — I’ve had other women to tell me it was Brenda Starr. Did you ever have a Brenda Starr moment?

IFILL: Melba Tolliver.

BOND: Yes, I’ve heard about Melba. Tell us who Melba Tolliver is.

IFILL: Melba Tolliver was the only African American woman I’d ever seen on television and she had a big Afro and when we turned on our black and white set, there she was. I believe she worked for CBS at the time. And I’ve never met her. All I know is that she left a very big impression upon me because I didn’t want to be in television, but here was a black woman asking the questions. I liked that. I could see that. And to this day, when people approach me and tell me that they’re glad to see me on television because they have daughters who see me and they see that same thing, that makes my day. That’s what I want to know, the sense of possibility.

I wanted to be a journalist because I like to ask questions. And I like the idea that someone might feel responsible for answering them. I liked to watch presidential news conferences. I loved to watch political conventions, watching John Chancellor get carried off the floor or Dan Rather. I found that all terribly romantic, so though it wasn’t about a woman or even about an African American, it was just about the idea of being in the middle of the mix and getting the questions I had answered, and that wasn’t always possible just sitting on your hands at home.