Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Mother

BOND: Now your mother being in public office — that's a rare, rare thing of this —

LEFTWICH: Oh, so rare.

BOND: — that time and place. What did that mean to you?

LEFTWICH: Oh, it was great fun. She used to take me with her all the time, and it meant that I learned politics from the age of five, right from the grassroots. She started out as a — well she started out as an activist for parent-teacher relations and founded the parent-teachers association at the school that we all went to. We all went to the same elementary school. And then she became involved in politics because it was clear to her that school policy was related to political policy, and she became a committee woman and then a ward leader. Or I guess she first was one of the poll watchers. And I was always with her. I would go with her. It meant that I was learning about political power. I was learning about caution inside white institutions because my mother, although she was — she finally seconded the nomination of Thomas E. Dewey at his last convention. And so she was moving around in the rarified atmosphere of party politics.

But she never went to social events. She would go to the meetings. She would go to the conventions. But she did not go where people drank. Why? Because when people drink they forget themselves and they begin to act out in ways that were unacceptable to her and which would not have respected her. And so she handled it by not putting herself in that situation. So I learned that. And I learned that also you don't always win even if you're the best candidate and if you run a very good campaign because there was then, as there is now, differential treatment of women in politics.

My mother ran for what would be considered councilperson-at-large now. The unit of government was most influential where I grew up was the county government. Erie County, like Chicago, had come to terms with the very large African American population. 35 percent of the population when I was growing up was black. Erie County had decided that there were wards that ought to be represented by the people who live there. So the fifth ward in Buffalo was the ward that — where most African Americans lived. And it had, before my mother ran, had a member of county legislature who was an African American who was the undertaker. He was very prominent, very effective person. And he died.

My mother ran for his office having been very prominent, having — my watching people wake us up at two or three o'clock in the morning. "Mrs. Scruggs, could you get my son out — he's in jail." "Mrs. Scruggs, can you get — we're being evicted." It was on and on. So I saw all of that. But I saw that when she ran for the supervisor's job, she was defeated, and she was defeated because she was a woman. People didn't even know this man that they voted for to fill that position. So I learned that. I learned also that my personality wasn't suited to public office.

My mother was very genteel. She was a very strong woman, and she was very clear and focused and she was very visionary. But she had come up in an era where manners and behavior were of a kind that I found constraining and restricting, and she would be very diplomatic just by nature. She wasn't being deferential.