Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Parents, Grandparents & Artists

BOND: Who are the people who have been most significant in shaping you, in creating you, in helping you develop?

BRAUN: Well, other than my parents which is pretty obvious, I've been blessed to have people come into my life at pivotal moments and make all the difference. When I dropped out of college, dropped out of high school really, a fellow by the name of Larry Hawkins who's still at the University of Chicago, essentially just turned my whole vision around and suggested to me that I could go on. In those days, they called it broadening your horizons, so Larry Hawkins made a great difference at that point in my life. When I got to -- I'm probably leaving somebody out, but when I got to the state legislature a woman named Ethel Alexander who was elected at the same time that I was, but she was a generation older -- in fact, I'm old enough to be her daughter or young enough to be her daughter -- she made a huge difference, so there're people along the way who touched my life at times when I might've taken one road or another and by their influence in my life, made a big difference.

BOND: Now, you mentioned your mother and father a moment ago and said that they weren't Bohemians, but they were people living in the artistic world and had people in the house. What about them?

BRAUN: Oh, well, my parents had an unusual marriage to begin with. I mean, it was a tumultuous marriage, but at the same time -- and they were opposites. My mother was very -- she called it "firesides and slippers." She wasn't social. She wasn't -- she had a little group of people that gravitated to her. She was very, in that regard, seen kind of as an earth mother that attracted people, but she wasn't all that outgoing. My father, on the other hand, was very outgoing and was involved in movements and causes and always engaged with the outside world and so as a result, he wound up -- he was a police officer or in law enforcement in some role or another as his day gig, if you will, but he played seven instruments and so he played the saxophone part-time professionally and so because he was in the Sol Hicks Band. I actually have a picture of the band and my mother sitting on the sidelines. I guess she was singing that night or something, so he played in a band and the result was that the musicians of that day, that time, were very much a part of our household and so [when] I grew up I knew Gene Ammons. I knew Byrd, Charlie Parker.

BOND: Charlie Parker?

BRAUN: Absolutely. Thelonious Monk. My aunt dated Dexter Gordon for a while, so all these musicians were around as I was growing up and in addition to the musicians, there were the artists. You know, inevitably where you find musicians, you find artists, and so I just grew up around the arts and that -- I don't know if by osmosis or otherwise, but that also I think influenced my world view.

BOND: I read some place that you described the difference between your mother and father as the difference between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. How did that play out?

BRAUN: That's exactly right. I didn't realize I had done that, but, yes, that's exactly right. Well, because she was very much. In fact, she had an expression that "You grow where you're planted." You do the best job you can where you're planted, and her expression was whether you're a street sweeper or the president of the United States, you do the best job you can at what you're doing and be proud of your work, so she was very much a "This is the job, this is the task, focus on not having ambitions, not seeing a world outside of the home and the family as being all that relevant."

He, on the other hand, did see the world and was very concerned about what was going on in the world and did what he could in his way to make a difference and to change things and so his social activism I think was borne of that and so I grew up, again, in addition to the musicians and the artists, I met my first -- I met a woman by the name of Anna Langford. [She] was the first black female alderwoman in Chicago, and he took me to Anna Langford's office when I was eleven so that I would meet a black woman alderman, and there was another woman judge, Edith Sampson, and he took me to meet her. We went around. He was very -- again, he had this broad mind and so we were raised Catholic. That was kind of a family compromise, but we went to and explored other religions with him and he would take us to everything from Buddhist temples and the Hindus temples; the Baha'i Temple, of course, there in Chicago; Jewish synagogues, the Muslims, the Moslems, the Zoroastrians. I mean, as a child we would go to mass on Sunday and then either on the Saturday before or on the Sunday, we'd go to some other service once a month and so I had a chance to, again, without knowing that was part of my education, learn about world religions from a very early age.

BOND: Very quickly back to Anna Langford, do you think this put something in your mind that "I could do this some day" ?

BRAUN: I don't think so. I mean, it's like kids, you take them and you try to expose them and they go "ah ah." I think that was kind of my attitude was like "ah, I don't." No, I don't. In fact, I didn't -- I didn't think of myself as -- I didn't envision or envisage a political career at all until I was running for office, for all intents and purpose. I mean it just, it wasn't something that I thought of as having any real relevance to my own career.

BOND: What about your grandmother?

BRAUN: Well, I had two very different grandmothers. My mother's mother, my grandmother I called my saint and guardian angel. She was a very -- she was the one who went to Mass every morning; every day she went to Mass. Lived a very structured life, very calm life. Well, her life actually was filled with tragedy, but later when I knew her, by the time I got up, she was a person in whom I found great refuge and nurturing and comfort and guidance.

My other grandmother was hell on wheels. I can say it even -- I'm sorry [laughs] and she was a black nationalist. She was what the men -- they were called race men, but she was -- and also what today is being called a revert. That's to say her family had been Muslims from North Africa, I gather. That's kind of getting lost in the midst of time, but anyway, she became a Muslim and so I actually went with her to hear Elijah Muhammed speak. I‘ve seen her. In fact, there was a convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 and I went under the auspices of -- somebody at that time was one of the mentors, Dick Newhouse, and I looked up and there's this little woman coming down the walk through the gymnasium, some big gymnasium, and she had on the Muslim garb and I looked at her and I said, "Mama Liz, what are you doing here?" She said, "I'm here to be with my people, the Ethiops are gathering" so, she had been very much, again, a black nationalist and very into not being -- into being a Muslim and so she practiced kind of the amalgamation of Muslim beliefs that Elijah Muhammed represented.