Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Early Development

BOND: You said a moment ago that the pace of the law was so slow that you decided to go into politics. Was that the totality of the decision, or were other things saying "come on and run"?

MARSH: When I started off, I went to Atlanta too because we really didn't have much opportunity to participate in the political system. You know, there were very few black elected officials. In Atlanta there was an organization called the Southern Regional Council -- a bunch of goodwilled, white people who were speaking basically for poor people and black people. And Vernon Jordan, who was my classmate in college, got me interested because he wanted some of his friends, I guess, to be his bosses at the Board of Education project. So he selling me to Atlanta, and I went to Atlanta. That's how I got mixed in with what they call the Atlanta Mafia – Senator [LeRoy] Johnson and the Atlanta leadership. There was a female senator. I've forgotten her name now.

BOND: Grace Hamilton.

MARSH: Grace Hamilton. And a bunch of very enlightened white people. So I got to learn a little bit about what was going on. And I stayed with that for quite some time, and I learned that there was a tremendous need for black elected officials. I mean, without the Southern Regional Council, at one point, there was no voice for African American people.

BOND: So, this was the Board of the Voter Education project right after Vernon takes over from Wiley Branton?

MARSH: Right. And so that's how I got involved. I learned a whole lot from that association. I was still involved in the desegregation struggle in Virginia. I was handling school cases all over the South. Those cases were so slow. There was a need for black elected officials. So, the poll tax was eliminated in Virginia, and a local organization called the Richmond Crusade for Voters was working to stimulate black voters. They were paying poll tax and getting people registered. So the political organization from the business community picked a black to run, and he was elected. Then the next time, because of the Voting Rights Act, they picked two blacks.

BOND: The white organization picked two.

MARSH: Yeah. And I was okay until I heard them on the radio one morning say that – blacks now – say, "Our civil rights have been achieved. Now what we have to do is prepare ourselves." And my breakfast came back. I was so upset. So I began to run around to black leaders, those who had run for Council before. Said, "Man, you have to run." I went to Governor Wilder and said, "Man, you gotta run." He was a promising young criminal lawyer. I said, "Somebody's gotta run for City Council because we need somebody who's independent." Everyone I went to said the same thing -- " I don't have time. Henry, you do it." I was running all over the state litigating. I didn't have time. But I was running out of time so I said, "Well, I'll do it for two years. That will give me time to find someone." When I went to the first meeting I realized that – well, I won't say. I don't want to characterize their intelligence. But I was so amazed at how little these people knew about what they were doing. So I came out of the first meeting and said, "You know, I could do a better job of providing leadership to these guys." And I immediately started to form a coalition to take over the Council, of white and black. The next time around, two years later, we ran a coalition. I was just a freshman Councilman, and we almost got it. Three members of my coalition were elected, and the three whites, the other two whites and myself. But the blacks were defeated. But they came close. So ,at that point I began an eleven-year crusade to provide leadership for the city.