Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Personal Journey of Leadership Development

BOND: Congressman, you said in an interview earlier on that people— everybody in your neighborhood treated you like you were their kid. How did you get to be the neighborhood's kid and how did you get to be this feeling of self-confidence that you could do these things that other kids didn't think they could do? Where'd that come from?

RANGEL: Four years in the Army helped me a great deal. I mean, you don't know anybody that could give orders to eighteen cannoneers to get fire on the enemy seven miles away giving directions to 155 millimeter howitzers. That makes you important. But, no, even before I got into the Army, and a lot of it's in the book, I couldn't believe that they would want me to be out there in the field acting, you know -- and so I just got dressed up, which I liked to do, in my Class A uniform, got myself a clipboard, and before we went to Korea, hey, I was well-known at the main fort because they knew I was with the colored outfit on the base and the color outfit on the base knew that I was up there.

It worked out for me, and someone once said, "Assume the virtue if you have it not." It worked for me on the block. I went to a Catholic church in one block and hoodlums in the other block and I had to survive both blocks. And I just like people and, you know, someone said, "Well, where did you pick up the talents to become a leader?" And I almost laughed because I kind of believe if you're in a group and you want to get something done, you can't get it just being quiet and letting someone else do it. So in the book, I've said my mom got sick and I had to live with her crazy uncle, her crazy brother, Uncle Herbert in the Bronx. And I went to a white school for a year and my uncle couldn't get over how his black nephew was in charge of the Black Pirates, a group that I formed, and they were all white.

What the hell. You play what you have to work with, you know? And we had our codes and all of that. And so I think the inspiration to succeed means that in life you have to find out how you can make your path a lot easier.

Now, there's a pre-Army. Then there's an Army. Then there's a post-Army. That post-Army made me the kid in the block because half of the kids didn't have fathers, but at that time, those fathers cared about more than just their kids. And those of us who didn't have fathers would enjoy listening to the stories of the fathers who cared about all of us. And then if after that group you tell them that you want to become a lawyer and a politician -- after they get over the laughs and find out that you're prepared to work at it, two or three jobs, like the son of Charlie never had. There was a Jewish hardware store guy and his son wasn't all that he wanted him to be, but I was. I was.

BOND: So you became a surrogate son?

RANGEL: For the community. And even today I use the word "thank you" so much because all of the people that gave us — you know, right now, I'm chairing the Ways & Means Committee. The most exciting thing that comes out of this is my neighborhood saying, "We won at last." You know, they may not even know what it is, but they kind of say, "He's our bum. We cleaned him up. We made him somebody. Now, look at where we are today." And that is just exciting the things I can get done in the Congress. And I don't think today that we have enough fathers anchored to share, tragically, and a lot of those fathers that are there are to help out for their children, as committed as they are, the outgoing and the vibrations and the excitement of a Harlem community where everybody reached out for everybody -- I don't see that even today.