Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Brown: Pre-history and Cautious Optimism

BOND:  We want to begin with a short session focusing on the Brown decision in 1954.  When you heard about this decision, where were you? 

LEFTWICH:  Well, when I heard about it, I was in in college.  I was on the campus of North Carolina Central University  But even more importantly, I was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper which published pretty regularly so what we then called the new civil  decision… we used to call it Brown in those days -- was top news.  And I wrote an editorial about it and of course one of the front page stories was about the Supreme Court decision which once again reaffirmed from the perspective of the people of North Carolina on that campus …..reaffirmed our right to the promises of the Constitution of the American democracy.  I thought that it was a good thing.  I was prompted to look at what I wrote in that time because things -- I think things both blend and sharpen in retrospect and I would have thought that I was  more cynical than I actually was.  I thought that it was a good thing.  I did not think it was going to work in Georgia Alabama, and Mississippi but for some reason that’s interesting when I think about it now, I thought it would work fine in North Carolina and Virginia so, even at that point had feelings that there would be differential applications of the concepts of Brown    --   the  notion of separate but equal being unconstitutional was still new enough that I wondered whether or not American -- African Americans were going to trust the constitutional decision –- trust the Supreme Court enough to send their children to enroll in schools which previously had been segregated.  So, it was a mixed feeling    

BOND:  So would you describe your feeling as a cautious optimisim –

LEFTWICH:  Oh, yeah….

BOND:  good here probably won’t work here?

LEFTWICH:  It was cautious optimism, and It also was sort of idealistic in the sense that I felt that it represented a shift that turned out not to be as deep as I had expected of attitudes toward Afircan Americans by white Americans particularly with regard to institutional access.  And I think that I expected that people who were my peers, because I interviewed students, I interviewed the President, and the Dean of the Law School, and the Dean of Students about what they thought.  I thought that they were going to now go to the next plateau and carry out what had been the objectives and ideals and the activities  –- people don’t  really know but in the 50s, the civil rights movement had already begun.  It hadn’t taken on the breadth and depth that it actually achieved. But there were people sitting in in places.   I got arrested for drinking out a water fountain in Durham, North Carolina that was marked white, which I thought I could plainly see was white, so there was a stirring of determination to make Brown be what we thought it should be.

BOND:  Did the stirring of determination become quickened because of Brown?

LEFTWICH:   I think so --

BOND:  that is pre-existing activists felt encouraged.

LEFTWICH:  Absolutely, absolutely.  You know, Brown was a long time in being argued.   I was also in the Law School for some courses so I was aware of the work of the civil rights lawyers and the NAACP and efforts to have Brown decided in support of equity and justice so it was an anticipated event – certainly for me and for the people that I hung out with on campus. You know – all of the usual -- David

Dinkins says all the usual suspects and rabble rousers – people who were agitating for change.  And many of us were from the North and had gone South to the HBCU.s intentionally to be in that environment to help with this process of the elimination of discrimination.