Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Foundational Experiences

BOND: You talked last night about how your mother's leadership at these PTAs inspired you to aspire to leadership positions in school. What did you take away from these races for student body president and so on? What did that represent to you? Is it simply that your mother had said, "This is a preferable thing to do," or was there more involved?

JORDAN: I liked leadership.

BOND: What did you like about it? What did it mean?

JORDAN: In wanting to be a leader, you had to articulate a position. You had to convince people of your leadership. I made -- you remember I ran against our friend, Lonnie King, for president of the student body and I lost. I've never gotten over that. But I learned a great lesson. And the lesson was that you have to do more than make the best speech. The other lesson was that you have to give to people something that they can put into their hands. I made a great speech. Lonnie King put salt and pepper shakers in the cafeteria. And that was a huge lesson. I remember going home and saying to my mother that I had lost. And I remember my mother saying to me, "That's a very good thing." And so I said, "Why is that a very good thing that I lost?" She said, "A little defeat is good for you. You were getting cocky, you were getting arrogant," and said, "a little defeat will bring you down to size." She never blinked. And I think that she may have been right about that. I've not ever since run for public office either.

BOND: But it strikes me that the church, the school, the Y -- all of these give young people like yourself, boys and girls, a chance to have leadership positions or to serve in organizational settings that might not have been available in rural Georgia and might not have been available had there, in fact, been an integrated world. Had blacks and whites lived together, the chances for leadership diminished because the group's larger. So the opportunity you have to be a student body president is less than it would have been in this segregated setting, a smaller setting.

JORDAN: Yeah, but my sense of arrogance, my cockiness is such that had I been in a totally integrated situation...

BOND: You would have risen up.

JORDAN: I would have been a leader as I was at DePauw University as a student. I was very much involved in student activities. So that whatever leadership I was going to give would not have been relegated to an all-white or an all-black situation. And I think my life has proven that.

BOND: Now you go to DePauw. Why DePauw? It seems to me with both the collection of black colleges in Atlanta and the collection of colleges around the country out of the South you might have gone to, why this one?

JORDAN: It was different. And this marvelous man came to my school, Paul -- I can't remember his last name now. I just remember him. I've since met his daughter, who's a principal in Oakland, California. Representing the National Service and Scholarship Fund for Negro Students out of New York -- now defunct.


JORDAN: NSSFNS, it was called. And he spoke to the Honor Society and he talked about going North to school. And this was contrary to the plan with my then-buddies in high school. But it had great appeal to me. And I lost friends as a result of being different. And some of my teachers said to me, "Morehouse was good enough for me, why isn't it good enough for you?" But I was challenged by the opportunity to do something different and to go beyond Atlanta. I had already been accepted at Howard University and that's where I thought, at the moment, that I was going. But the difference in DePauw -- the DePauw climate, the challenge of it -- I went to Greencastle right after I finished high school. And the director of admissions suggested that I was not good enough for DePauw given my high school background, that I should go to a state school in Indiana maybe, but not to DePauw. And that, too, was a challenge. I said, "I'll be back." And I went back. And I have no regrets about it. I ultimately went to Howard University Law School. I have no regrets about that. I felt like that I got the best of both at DePauw University and at Howard University Law School. And that these two situations prepared me for the world in which I am living.