Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Early Development

BOND: And then you go on to high school and you become a kind of a leader in high school?

OGLETREE: Almost by default, because I was very quiet kid and shy kid. I did very well, academically, but I just wanted to do my work. The reading is what really opened the door, that I was convinced that I could do and should do anything, any challenge that was before me. I went to high school and got involved in what we called Operation Get Together. It was too early to have a black student union. That was too radical.

BOND: Yeah.

OGLETREE: So, our black student group was called Operation Get Together. And we started talking about the issue of, you know, integration, the issue of equality, injustice, and reading a little bit of black history before there was a popular black history month or week that we could celebrate it.

At the same time, as I became more of a leader and went through high school, in my junior year I was going to run for vice president. The dean of students, John Lenker and the white student body president, Jack Kanealy, came to me and said, "Look Charles, you've done all these things. You've been an athlete, an honor student, you're a leader in your community. Why are you running for vice president?" I said, "Well because that's -- I'd like to do that." He said, "You should run for president." I said, "President? That, that runs the whole student body." He says, "We think you deserve to be president and you should run," and they persuaded me.

And so, I ran a campaign. It was the first rainbow coalition in the history of Merced High School. And I didn't realize it that there was a coalition because I played football with whites and blacks and Chicanos and Asian Americans, Samoans. And that we came together as a group, whether you were a lineman, or quarterback, or defensive back, that we had very different qualities. And we brought that diversity together to make a whole unit. And student government and that -- the Operation Get Together, involved in plays and other things that -- my science team was white, my art class was diverse. I knew people. I'd sneak into home economics to steal some cookies when the women were baking. And so, I had this whole variety of people that supported me that I didn't even realize.

I ran on a unity campaign in 1970 and was elected the first African American student body president at Merced High School. And then I told Gil Grover, who was a student advisor that, "It's not enough to just be the high school president. I want to go and talk to other schools." And he arranged almost every week that we take the afternoons. We'd go to Turlock and Modesto and Fresno, and talk to other black students in schools about student governments, about voting, about issues of responsible leadership for young people.

They arranged for me to go to Washington, D.C., to attend the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, which were student leaders in high school -- my first trip out of California. And I learned the importance of leadership then and it was very significant. I went to Washington as student body president. I met President Nixon, who was in office in the early '70s, and I met somebody who had a profound impact on my sense about America and democracy.

He was a reporter. We didn't know why he talked to us, and -- they had a series of people talk to us, and he had the most impact on me. His name was Jack Anderson. And Jack was obviously very popular then, but we didn't know -- "Why are we talking to this journalist?" And he talked about journalism. He talked about the truth. He talked abut the First Amendment and why we needed to have press about that. Then he talked about democracy. And he said something that just stuck with me, and he wasn't saying that he was -- he hadn't attributed to his own thing, but he said "There's a saying you should appreciate." He said, "Democracy is the worst form of government imaginable -- except for the all the others."

And then when he said that and we started thinking about freedoms, about the freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom of association, it dawned on me that there was something remarkable and exceptional about America. And the problem was not that we didn't have rights. We just didn't exercise them. And I think he opened up my eyes in ways that no one else had in a fundamental way, to say, "There's nothing that I'm going to avoid doing now, because now I know that I have the freedom to do it. And I also have the responsibility to not just be someone who is successful, but the responsibility to always go back, lower the ladder to make sure others, who have not crossed over into the land of opportunity are able to do so."