Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

How Leaders Are Made

BOND: Let me ask you something about making leaders. People think you make leaders in one of three ways. Number one, great people cause great events. Number two, movements create leaders. Or number three, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for their times. Does one of these fit you?

RANGEL: Yeah, the last one — events create leaders.

BOND: Unpredictable events?

RANGEL: Yeah. The Voting Rights Act. The fact that I came to Congress succeeding the late and great Adam Clayton Powell, who was bigger than life and so he overshadowed the other eight African Americans. The fact that under the leadership of Charlie Diggs, the thirteen of us thought it was time for us to come together. The expansion of the Voting Rights Act where the thirteen became twenty-six and thirty-six and today, we have forty-three African Americans. The fact that Hispanics have over twenty that’s in the Congress. The fact that when the Democratic Party walks out, that you know that we have the votes. The fact that I put in over thirty years and that my elevation to the chairmanship of the committee, which I’ve served on for over twenty years, goes unchallenged. All of these things are the time in which we live.

BOND: And you’re saying that all these things were unpredictable.

RANGEL: Unpredictable?

BOND: You couldn’t predict that these things would happen. But what about great people causing great events?

RANGEL: Who’s great? Are you born great?

BOND: Well — no, you’re not born great but you think about Martin Luther King, who’s chosen to lead that movement in Montgomery. Nobody knew him or heard — he was new in town, but somehow or another he rose to the occasion which I don’t think anybody knew what the occasion was going to be, but he rose to it and he led it and he guided it to victory, so here was a great leader creating — of course, it’s an unforeseen event. You couldn’t have known Rosa Parks was going to sit down. But somehow or another, it strikes me this is also a way leaders are created, that great leaders can create movements.

RANGEL: Well, there are great events that call for challenges, but if you’re not a great leader, you won’t even know. You wouldn’t even know the event was taking place. I marched from Selma to Montgomery. I cursed every step of the way. I had no clue how I got sucked up in that with my bad feet. I did not appreciate who Martin Luther King was or what you guys were doing down there. I wanted to be supportive, not a great leader. But as a result of that march and so many other things that occurred, and recognizing even with the greatness of Martin Luther King, how many great leaders died and was lynched and was killed because of the circumstances that Martin found himself in with Rosa Parks, but I think someone that’s a leader and no one knows how — what they did or what she did, God, there has to be a special place for those people just because they weren’t recorded in the papers or in television as to what they did. And the story I’m telling you is not the story I’m going to tell my grandkids about that march.


RANGEL: But there’s no question of the relationship between that Selma march, Lyndon Johnson — he knew that we were going to lose the white Democrats in the South. He made this historic decision and as a result of the explosion of opportunity on the local level and the state level and in the Congress, we got six Charlie Rangels chairing six different committees, a dozen subcommittees, and those are the circumstances that we find ourselves in because of people like Martin Luther King.

I mean, if I’m included in the number of national leaders and then you come and say, "Of course, you know you’re putting your life on the line." I’m going to say, "Julian, can we talk, because I’m committed, but — " Even when I did put my life on the line, those North Koreans didn’t do anything to me. Neither did the Chinese so there may be some questions as to what the heck I was doing there in the first place. But I think those like you and John Lewis, Andrew Young, and your families never knew that you were coming home at night — there’s no substitute for that type of courage, especially when you didn’t know you were going to win and you didn’t know how many other people cared. And it was that that turned the country around because the same way our country’s rejected the Jews that were trying to escape from Germany during the war, or now reject the Haitians that are trying to get here, they knew what white folks were doing in the South. And when I say they, I’m talking about cardinals and bishops and rabbis and imams, and when my crazy uncle would listen to the Garveyites and I thought he was crazy because how could all of these things be happening and all of New York and all of the country be just so insensitive to murders by white folks where they never brought to justice but as the concerns built up and people like you said you were ready to risk your lives and the televisions came and the dogs came and the bombs came and circumstances came, and then people said, "Enough is enough," and turned it around. But it was circumstances because people like you and Martin and Andrew and John had no idea — no idea — that this was going to happen, so what does that mean to me?

It meant that you were prepared to lose your life when the whole mission [were] probably history being recognized would probably lose as so many before you did without television. So there’s a special place that I have for people like you because I just play the hand that’s dealt me.

BOND: Well, you’ve played it very well. You played it very well.

RANGEL: Well, you can’t just throw away a bad hand and think you got to win.