Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Transition to Peace Corps world

BOND: You grow up largely in the segregated world going to segregated schools. Then you enter the Peace Corps, not immediately after that, but you enter the Peace Corps and it's overwhelmingly white. What was this transition like for you?

WILLIAMS: Well, actually I think the Chicago Teachers College was actually very integrated in those days. I would say it was probably maybe 50/50, so I had already been for four years in really integrated classrooms and I had many friends, many white friends, students, who were my friends, so it wasn't that big a departure but I was the only African American in my group of a hundred people in the Peace Corps in training and so I flew out to San Diego. The first time I'd ever been on an airplane and I fly out to San Diego to San Diego State College and there we are in the dormitory, all one hundred of us, and we're trying to figure everybody out—why did you decide to do this, where are you from, and the great thing about the Peace Corps is that you run into people from all walks of life, children from great wealth, children from working class families. There we are all there with a common mission, so I was uncertain about whether or not this had been the right choice. Again, I had it ringing in my ears this message from home that this was a big mistake—why are you doing this, but I have to tell you something, Julian, it was really interesting. After about a week, I was a hundred percent certain that I had made the right decision. These were people who cared about making the world a better place. They listened to each other. We were determined to bond and learn more about each other and how we could help each other. It was a positive environment. People were optimistic and I thought to myself, how I could be in a better group of people. I'm surrounded by this positive energy and this force. This was the right decision.

BOND: Wonder how many of them were older than you are. I remember Jimmy Carter's mother was a Peace Corps volunteer. Was there anybody in your cohort older than you, much older than you?

WILLIAMS: In my group, there were only a handful of people who were maybe in their 40s or 50s, just a couple and, of course, we respected them greatly because they had had careers and we thought this was brilliant that they were doing this, but I was also one of the youngest. I think I was the youngest actually in my group.