Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People

BOND: Your father is a journalist for a crusading newspaper. Your mother is a civil rights activist in her own right. And after your father's death you moved to New York, where a neighbor in the building is your uncle, Roy Wilkins, who is a famous civil rights figure. Do you have now memories of how this militance of your father's profession, the aggressiveness of your mother's activism, and the example of your uncle's profession – how all this affects you?

WILKINS: It was gradual. It just grew into me. I can't tell you any specific moment when there was a great awakening. This was the family business. This is what we did. This is who we were. And I was, I guess, most influenced by my mother, who is a very mild-appearing person – very, very determined. And she would never stop. And she kept pressing, and she kept pressing, and she is well-educated. She was a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Minnesota, and she used her education and she used her social polish as weapons in her struggle to open up opportunities. And so, I think of all those people – my father lit the flame and my mother gave me the style. But I don't really think that I had any choice but to be associated with the movement.

BOND: You said last night at a public forum that your father had given you an appreciation of words. And I wonder how much that appreciation of words came to you as an example of just how everybody ought to be. Or as an example of how you, a black kid, ought to be if you were going to make it in this world. Was there a distinction made between these things?

WILKINS: My father loved to read the dictionary.

BOND: Really?

WILKINS: He had an extraordinary vocabulary. He didn't go around showing it off but he really loved words and he loved – he would have been a wonderful professor of English, I think. He also – I think the happiest night of my childhood was the night that my mother and grandmother went out and he said, "We are going to be guys together. We are going to have a night together." What we did was we both sat down and chose our favorite books and read about English kings. He was reading King Lear and I was reading King Arthur. And I just remember that as the warmest, most companionable night. But before I went to school he had me learn ten words a day from a little child's dictionary. And he said, "You are going to have to know words. This world is not fair. You're going to – " So it was – he was arming his black child. And at some level I understood that.

BOND: And for your mother, I imagine, it's only gradually, as you get older, that you understand precisely what it is that she does.

WILKINS: Right. Right.

BOND: But is it some consciousness – when do you have a consciousness that she is fighting for the race, that she is making civil rights activism as her life – when do you understand this?

WILKINS: When I understood her – when my father was out of the picture, and all of a sudden, she is the central figure in my life, and she is traveling all the time, and she is going to the South. And she is in her early thirties – thirty-one, thirty-two – and she was a very good looking widow. And I understood the South to be a place of peril. And I understood that she was going down there to change it. And I worried about her. I worried that bad things would happen to her. So, I got the sense that this was something you had to do, even though it was perilous. And that you used your brains and your charm to get it done. So, all of those lessons were packed into me young, by the time I was twelve.

BOND: So, her example sets a standard for you?


BOND: And even though you may not do precisely exactly what she does, you are going to do something like what she does.

WILKINS: Exactly.

BOND: Whatever you do is going to be somehow connected to what she does.

WILKINS: I did not make the conscious decision, but it was there. As I said, it had grown into me.

BOND: Okay, now what kind of example does Uncle Roy, whom you describe as not a warm, close person, but he is in the building. You have to see him all the time.

WILKINS: Well, he is down the street. There were two big buildings in Harlem that were big, middle-class buildings. One was at 160th and Edgecombe, and one was at 155th and Edgecombe. So, he was right down the street. Roy was a distant man because his whole life had been marked by emotional loss. My grandmother died when he was about six or seven. My grandfather kind of left the family, left the kids to be raised by my grandmother's sister and her husband. He had a beloved sister, Armeda, who died when he was in the – when she was in college. And then his brother, my father, who was – they were like this [making a hand gesture to symbolize closeness] – died when he was about forty. In addition, he had loved a woman, my Aunt Marble, and she had left him. So, his whole – and I think he was really – by the time I came into his life, he was just afraid to get too close to anybody. However, he used to take me around to NAACP meetings when I was kid. And, you know, around when he spoke in the New York region. And this was when I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old, and I watched him talk. And he was one of the most graceful and most fluent men that I've ever seen, even to this day. And obviously I admired [him] even though I felt this distance. I felt it was my fault that somehow there was something wrong with me that I could not approach him. But even though there was that distance, I admired his style and his commitment. And when I grew up, I didn't want the world to think that I was trading on his name to become whatever I was going to become. But the admiration never left. I was very proud of him and was glad he was my uncle.