Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Black Role Models

BOND: Now, what was it that they represented? I know you say "good" and "big" and "helpful," but if you see Dr. Mays, this erect, impressive, dignified figure -- you know he's the college president. You see Rufus Clement. You talked about his three-piece suits. What is it that they represent and how do you connect your aspiration and drive to them? You, obviously, had an opportunity later on to be a college president but you turned that away. So that's not it.

JORDAN: Smartest thing I did. But anyhow, they represented leadership, they represented success, they represented giving back to the community, they represented -- they validated what hard work and sacrifice could get you. They were -- you know, Bennie Mays could have been president. But by reason of his race and the circumstances of his life, he was -- he could only be president of Morehouse. But he could have been president of Harvard. And so they were just examples of what I could be if I was prepared to make the kind of sacrifices that my parents told me I had to make to do that. They also cared about what they were doing, and that was somehow obvious to me because I would see them at the Butler Street Y, I would hear their speeches, I would see them at the Atlanta Negro Voters League, I would see them at the NAACP. Their life was not restricted to the academy.

BOND: Now you talked about seeing them in these various contexts. These are essentially black contexts.


BOND: The NAACP, the Voters League and so on. But you also had to know that someone like Warren Cochrane, the director of the YMCA, served as a kind of middle man between black and white Atlanta, and that Mays and Clement and these other figures also had a necessity to deal with the larger white world. And I wonder if you had any recognition of that then, that there was a world outside of this black, circumscribed world, however rich and vibrant it was, that called to you or that you thought you might have some dealings with in some day in the future.

JORDAN: I don't think during my high school years I really fully comprehended the vastness of leadership, the integrated nature of it. But when I finished law school and came back and became a part of the community and began to take part in civic and political activities, I could see the value of the network, the value of talking to people. I would look at Bob Thompson, who ran the local Urban League, and see how he was operating, how -- what it meant to have that Hungry Club forum and the integrated nature of that. And then in my second job as state director of the NAACP, I had the opportunity to pick up Roy Wilkins at the Atlanta Airport and drive him to Macon. And so, two years out of law school you have Roy Wilkins hostage, actually, to your questions and to your inquiries. Two hours to Macon and two hours back. And you see him working on his speech and you ask him about things. Same thing with Clarence Mitchell or Gloster Current or Ruby Hurley. I mean, that, in and of itself, was a huge, informal training ground. It was like getting a graduate degree in black politics and in institutional politics and in personal relationships. I learned a lot that way.