Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Brown

BOND: And so, as you yourself go to school -- and you're going to school almost entirely with people who look like you -- there's no change that the Brown decision had, as far as you're concerned, in the section of California where you're living. Do you know now, from the perspective of looking back, if other parts of the West, other parts of California, were affected, did make change?

OGLETREE: Well, there was change because we started hearing about it and learning about, from other family in other parts of the state, about this whole bussing phenomenon. We saw some interesting things happening. We thought it was good news at the time that young black children in inner cities like Los Angeles and other parts of the pockets were going to be moved and bussed to other areas to go to school with white children.

It didn't work the other way. White children weren't coming in --

BOND: Right.

OGLETREE: -- to urban America to be educated. It was a one-way system. The same thing was happening in northern California, in places like Hunter's Point and other areas where African Americans lived. And so, there was this sense that something was happening, a voluntary plan to provide opportunities for African Americans in higher education. So, we sensed that there was some subtle change that was going about. But at the same time, we were young enough to watch the news. And we were seeing incredible things on the old black-and-white TV -- that people were fighting, resisting the very idea that blacks could go to school.

In the 1950s, we were hearing about Governor [Orval] Faubus in Arkansas not letting black children go to Central High. In the 1950s, we heard from Governor George Wallace, "Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" And we would learn about the Southern Manifesto that our Congress was saying that "we will fight against integration," using the term that people attribute to Malcolm X, "by any means necessary." That's what the southern segregationists were saying, that they were going to fight this effort, and it was amazing to us that we thought a law had been decided, and people had to follow the law. But what we saw on the news and heard on the radio and read was that people were willing to give their lives to resist integration. And on the other hand, African Americans were dying with their white supporters when they were trying to promote integration in places throughout the South.

BOND: Now, from your parents' experience -- your parents lived in this section of the country, and your grandparents lived in this section of the country. Did they impart to you a picture of this society? What it was like as different from California where you lived?

OGLETREE: What they told me, and what was a sad reality, even if they're talking about the 1950s, is that there were two Americas -- one black, one white. They were separate and unequal. That was it, and that everything flowed from that, whether it is a relationship between the community and police, whether it's a relationship between employment opportunities and a lack thereof, whether it was the opportunities for a meaningful education, whether it was health care. It was -- everything was, in a sense, influenced by your race. And it was condition at birth that determined not your aptitude but your altitude, where you could possibly go. And they were, in a sense, messengers telling me what the paths looked like. At the same time they were aspirational in telling me that they hoped that my generation the children born after Brown --

BOND: So, this condition they're describing is not fixed.

OGLETREE: That's exactly right.

BOND: It's permeable. It can be changed.

OGLETREE: They were saying, "There is a decision of saying that we can integrate now. It means nothing to us. It's too late for us. We can't go back to school when we're forty and dropped out at fourth grade. We can't get a job when we're forty, when we don't have the marketable skills. We can't move into a neighborhood when we're forty. And we don't have the income. And we can't improve the debilitating health tragedies that we have in the family. But you can." And so, they started talking about reading, paying attention in school, and to hopefully be an optimist. They weren't negative in the way that they could have been. And, and in some sense I appreciate what they told me, but I'm disappointed that the worst aspects of history, they didn't share. They didn't share all the nightmares, all the horror stories, all about the KKK.

BOND: Why are you disappointed?

OGLETREE: Because I think we needed to understand that history because I -- my sense is that they should have gone to school. I don't understand why do you drop out of school if it's free? Why didn't you try to get a college education if it's available to you, even at a black college? Why didn't you move into another neighborhood if there are better opportunities? And they didn't want to go back to the painful experience, saying, "We could not have done that. It would have cost us our lives." And maybe they even felt that they were compromised by silently acquiescing in segregation, rather than being part of a movement to change it. And I'd like to know the stories, not because I want to be critical of them --

BOND: Right.

OGLETREE: -- because I think the painful history is an oral history that we need to appreciate so that I know that my grandparents and parents sacrificed so that I could be here. It makes clearer my responsibility to make considerably even more sacrifices for the next generation of children and grandchildren who will follow.