Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Style: Finding Common Ground

BOND: Now, one thing that seems to have typified your career is something we touched on earlier, and that is the ability to build coalitions of people, to put together people who might not have a — think they have a common interest but somehow or another you’ve been able to convince them that they do. How’s that come about?

RANGEL: It just makes sense, Julian. I mean, wasn’t that what you were all about when you were out there marching? If your skinny butt was just marching up and down the street, who would’ve cared what Julian Bond — when you announced you were running for president, if it was just you and someone that knew you in school, who would care? And so in order to make a difference, you’ve got to convince someone that not only you’re right, but you have the ability to try to make it work. And so I would love to try to think of something far more sophisticated, but to me, if I want to get a bill passed and it’s going to take two hundred and eighteen, I know what I have to do. And it’s exciting.

BOND: Yeah. It is. It was for me when I was in the Georgia legislature. It was exciting.

RANGEL: Of course.

BOND: But it was hard for me because some of the people I wanted to make up my majority were people whose political positions were so far removed from mine that under the normal course of things I might not even have spoken to them. But I had to. And it was hard for me to do it — I learned how to do it, but it was hard for me to do it. Now, what about you? There must be people in the House, in that four thirty-five, who are so far away from your own positions about so many things that you know you have nothing in common. How do you bridge that gap?

RANGEL: Don’t say that.

BOND: Or you think you have nothing in common.

RANGEL: I am telling you —

BOND: Or they think you have nothing in common.

RANGEL: That’s because once people stop talking with each other and made up their mind they have nothing in common, the easiest thing in the world — you know, in the Army sometimes the mean guys would say, you know, "What did you do to annoy Smith? Did you talk about his girlfriend, his wife, his mother?" I said, "Who’s Smith?" [They] said, "Well, Smith sure has been talking about you," and before you know it, Smith and Jones are fighting each other and they don’t even know each other because of what people said, but if someone says, "Smith thinks the world of you," and even if you’ve got the wrong guy, you said, you know, "Smith is a pretty decent guy."

I am convinced if you have enough time and patience, you’ve got to have something in common. And it’s amazed me to see how Southerners, white and black especially in Georgia, especially in Atlanta, have so much more in common than all the white folks and black folks I know in New York City because we don’t say the things that used to be said in the terrible anti-civil rights days, but my God, talk about what’s in common, the things I never knew in Harlem — that white folks ate grits and scrapple and collard greens. I just thought in Harlem we did it. And then I never saw any white Southerners — I don’t even remember until I went into the Army. What would they be doing in New York and what would they be doing in Harlem? And so your experience and ability to bring them along was talking about their cultures and I’m convinced that —

Well, there was a guy named Clay Shaw. He was a pretty conservative Republican.

BOND: From Florida?

RANGEL: From Florida, and he got sick. I sent him a note. We were on the same committee and we sat down next to each — when he came back, he came to thank me and we were talking about kids and grandkids, but a new Democratic white member, as soon as Clay went to sit on the other side, sat next to me and asked, "Now what was that all about?" Forgetting that I’ve known the guy for over thirty years! So, you can’t say just because — especially politicians who sometimes takes his constituent’s view as Lyndon Johnson who I think was the greatest president that black folks ever had because he forfeited a constituent position for a national position in terms of civil rights and voters’ rights. And I would’ve been the last one in the world to believe that he would have anything in common — when I heard him at Howard say, "We should overcome," I just couldn’t believe because I’d made up my mind how he looked, how he sounded, how his voting record was. So my point is, if you have the patience and the ability to work it out, as you well know as a legislator, the whole political thing is negotiating compromises so at the end of the day you say you’ve won, you can’t do that unless you find some middle ground and then you have to concentrate — sounds like I’m trying to save a marriage, doesn’t it? You have to concentrate —

BOND: Well, maybe it’s like that. Maybe it’s like that, yeah.

RANGEL: You have to really find out what have you got going for you with this issue and this person, and if you spend enough time about it to shatter the lack of patience or the bias, then for the first time you might be able to look more clearly. I mean, me working on education and trade on the Ways & Means Committee, I don’t care how mean and racist someone is, I can tell you, you don’t take care of these black kids, they won’t even be able to pick up a rifle to go into the Army. And certainly if you start looking for people, you know, in World War II, we got a lot of breaks because there was a shortage of women and blacks and whatnot, and our country is shrinking in terms of our ability. I don’t see how we can afford to keep up the walls of racism in this country when we’re going to have to be working together to economically, at least, be competitive with other countries.