Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Family

BOND: Now, go back to your early days. Who are the people who had the most significance in shaping your life and making you who you are today? Who were early influences on you?

RANGEL: The — poverty was the motivating factor in my life. You know. I went into the Army in 1948, to beat poverty, lack of opportunity — I didn’t know any black folks that had succeeded. Even my brother who really was my father and my best friend, my campaign manager, my buddy — I mean, he was everything, but he never graduated from school and my sister, of course, was a source of inspiration because I came home with all the medals and saw her in a white nurse outfit and she was the star. She was the one that broke the barriers saying that we can beat Lenox Avenue. And I guess my grandfather, the elevator operator. He had — when I came home and told him I was going to be a lawyer and a lot of it had to do because I just wanted to impress somebody.

When they asked — when I took the aptitude test and they said I should be a mortician or an electrician, so I knew at the VA that was strung out, but when I raised so much hell and when the head came out, John Becatoris, and he looked at me and he says, "Well, what the hell is it that you want to be?" That was one of the most defining moments in my life. I knew what I didn’t want to do. I had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. So I figured since I was staying with my grandfather and wanted to impress somebody — he was one of the last elevator operators to manually handle the main elevator at 100 Center Street, New York, the criminal court building, and the only thing that he would get excited about was when those judges and district attorneys and lawyers, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give him one when I come home and say, "Guess what, Grandpop, I’m going to become a lawyer." Well, he never stopped laughing.

BOND: Really?

RANGEL: But the truth of the matter is that he saw his grandson in the district attorney’s office in the very same building that he worked in for over thirty-five years, so that was inspiration enough for me and where I was fifty years ago, sixty years ago, I’m afraid so many youngsters find themselves in today and that is not having anybody but anyone, at least to plant the seed as to what they can be and the inspirations of the Malcolm Xs and the Garveys and the Adam Powells and the Kings — that’s not in our street today. I felt that all around me, and I even went down to march. But that was already after I had decided I had to get out of the situation that, hell, I went in the Army, I got shot up, I come back home, and I have the same opportunity.

Of course, I really didn’t think I needed all that high school diploma stuff. I really didn’t, and I didn’t know until I applied for a job that the guy that I used to give the GED test in the Army that I needed it, but once I found out, it made all the difference in the world.