Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Gender and Race: "Absolutely a black feminist"

BOND: Now, some people have called you a black feminist. Is that a comfortable -- ?

WATSON: Absolutely a black feminist. I was in that first group out in Los Angeles that talked about feminism and women having experiences and women competing for jobs that men usually had. We were not given to burning and getting rid of our bras, but we certainly adopted the feminist philosophy that women ought to have the same opportunity as men and there were groups that we joined early on.

BOND: But I can remember in this period people saying, "Listen, black women, black men have been held down so long that you need to stand aside and let them rise up." Did you ever run into that?

WATSON: I did.

BOND: And what was your reaction?

WATSON: In fact, when I ran for the Senate, there was a gentleman who had four children and he said, "Why don't you move out of the way and give me this opportunity?" I said, "I can do the work as well you can." And I really felt that. I didn't -- by the way, let me go back and say this. When the notion was brought to me that I should run for the Senate in California, I resisted that, but my campaign manager, who had been with me through my winning campaign for Board, brought in all the information why he felt I could win. I was media hot, as they say, because I was representing this whole group of African American children who were going to get on buses and integrate white schools in the Valley. And so, the media was always there, focusing right on me. And I had a hard time with them, but I was in the press. So he said, "You know, Julian's going to go on, and -- " I didn't run for his seat, but he said, "There's a place in the Senate for you."

BOND: He was being term limited out, right?

WATSON: Not at that time. No. But, he had just won the seat in Congress and there was a seat that opened up because Nate Holden, you see, quit the Senate to run for Congress. He was in the race with Julian, so that vacated that seat and it was my area where I lived. And I said, "Listen, it's breaking new ground for me. I'm an educator," and I said, "but I'll give you a fair chance at it," and we used to go around to different friends' home for brunch on Sunday, and so we met. And when I looked around the room, here were relatives and my loyal supporters saying, "We want you to run." I said, "I'm not going to say no, but I want you go out and talk to the educators. I want you to talk to labor, I want you to talk to -- " and so on, "and we'll meet at my home next Sunday."

Well, they did. They came an hour and two early and everybody came looking stern. They said, "We went to this and they'll support you, went to that," and so on and so forth. Next thing I knew, I was in the race. There were six other people. One was a man who asked me to step out of the way so he could have it, and I said no and the rest is history, but we were with a group of young Westside women as well as women from south central, and we were the progressives at the time and we would talk about opportunities for women. And that's how the feminist movement got started. We were on the ground floor and we worked hard, and people went in all different directions, and I went into the Senate.

BOND: Do you think there's been a conflict between the emphasis on women, and properly so, and the current emphasis on young girls? You know, we've got this push some places for all-female high schools, and some cities have all-female high schools, while black men, young men, seem to be falling by the wayside. Is it possible to be a strong feminist and still have concern for and lift up these young black men who just seem to be -- I don't want to exaggerate and say on the edge of distinction, but their circumstances just seem so dire.

WATSON: Those experiences are not mutually exclusive. We went through a period of time that we were trying to promote women and young black girls. In some ways, we avoided looking and focusing on our young men and -- you know, two people were free in the South. It was the white man and the black woman because she came out of the field to the yard to the house. So she knew all the secrets. She took care of the children, she took care of the house and so on. And so women have always -- black women -- have really been the glue that has kept the black family together. And so in being able to make progress through education and into professions, we then could bring our young people along with us. But I think society has neglected the black male. And of course, the black male has been victimized ever since we appeared in this country and I do think that we need to focus more on our young black men than we have in the past, so I don't have to prove anything and as a feminist anymore, but what we have to do is really start focusing and I've taken on that role. We've been looking at the gang structure. In fact, this goes all the way back to the mid '80s. When you find you have more black men in prison in California than you have in the university, that's a very troubling thought. And so I will agree we really need to put more focus and have more programs on bringing our young black men along and we need to be sure there's financial assistance. We need to be sure they have an opportunity to go to post-secondary educational programs. We need to be sure not all of them are forced into vocational education rather than taking on the scholarship and the rigors of getting a degree and becoming a professional and being able to be financially independent. We need to put more focus on our African American males today. I will agree with you.