Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Poverty as Both Uplifting & Destructive

BOND: Let me take you back a little to something you talked about a moment ago before we talked about your tenure in the Senate. And you said in this neighborhood, the Bucket of Blood neighborhood, that it was your uplifting and your brother's undoing. Why did it do that to you? Why was this experience, living in the middle of this abject poverty, and people whose lives are really going nowhere, why did it have that uplifting effect on you?

BRAUN: Well, you know, for me, I think because I saw it as — how can I put it? — as an experience from which I was supposed to learn something. I did not for a moment, although I perhaps should have been more frightened about it than I was, I didn't for a moment think that this was a permanent condition for us. I saw it as a reality that my mother and father had split up and that she could not — and she couldn't. She couldn't rent. She tried to rent, but you can imagine a single woman with four children had a hard time renting place anywhere in — I mean, she just couldn't find a place that would rent to us. It was interesting, because later as a state legislator, that was one of the first really laws that I passed was to halt discrimination against families with children on the grounds that they discriminated against us renting. And so the law is now, you know, and I think it's national now, but at the time in Illinois, anybody with more than four units in an apartment building can't say "You can't live here," just because you've got kids in the family.

And so we wound up living with my grandmother, in my grandmother's house for that reason. And my mother was at the time determined to get back on her feet, as it were, to get a house because my father wouldn't move out of the house. You see, he wouldn't leave the house that we had on Prairie and so she couldn't live there with us. And so, I mean, it was a nasty divorce but in any event, she was determined to get back on her feet and so I saw it as a temporary condition, number one; and number two, one from which I could learn something. I just wanted to — and I did make some friends but I was off doing my thing. I was in high school. I worked. I'd gotten my first job. I was a checker, a grocery store checker, so between school and work and, you know, the other kind of extracurricular things I was involved with, I was engaged and involved.

My brother, on the other hand, found society. He found comfort. He found his niche with the boys who were his age who were gang bangers and so the gang bangers were the ones that were involved with the — and John himself was not the violent type. In fact, he was gifted, not only brilliant in that he was a very smart guy or, you know, intellectually brilliant, I thought, but also he was blessed with the kind of personality that gets along with everybody. You know, there are people who everybody likes and who gets along with everybody and nobody's ever sorry to see them come in a room. I've never been one of those people, by the way. I wish I were, but John was always that kind of easy going and so he just kind of got pulled along with this crowd of folks who were just not — who were up to no good, as they say. And he got involved with the gangs and from being involved with the gangs, he got involved with the drugs, and from being involved with the drugs, he got involved with, you know, not — dropping out of high school, he dropped out of high school and it was just downhill from there. He never went to prison. I guess that's the only good thing that came of it, but he might as well have because his brain just got so fried over time that by the time he died, you know, it was almost a blessing at that point because he'd had breakdowns and everything since that point.