Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Impact of Catholic School

BOND: What did religion have to do with your early upbringing? You mentioned attending a Catholic school. How did that impact you?

WILLIAMS: Oh, Lord. Well, you know the struggles I've had as an African American leader and questions of my identity as an African American. Thoughtfully, and as a friend, and I'll be forever grateful to you, [because you] wrote an article in the Washington Post, a column, when I was running for re-election. I appreciate that, because I've had this issue with identity. I look back at my Catholic upbringing in these schools that were overwhelmingly white — and they were also exclusively male. In some ways, it was a great academic and intellectual upbringing, and so in terms of intellectual curiosity and intellectual competence and all that, I've got a lot to show for it because of that background. But in terms of identity issues, it was kind of a mess. It really was, and I — that's all, I mean, one day I'll deal — try to think back and deal with it. It's not the best situation that way.

BOND: The fact that it was a Catholic upbringing — how did that impact, if at all? Could this school have been Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist?

WILLIAMS: That's a great question. I think the Catholic church has got a very problematic history when it comes to human relations in general. Witness the Pope coming out years late apologizing for Pope Pius [XII] and the accommodation of the Nazis, basically. He really didn't say anything, and really equating the treatment of Catholics who were dissidents with the treatment of anybody who wasn't white and Aryan — I mean, to make that kind of equation is pretty bad to me, so there's a problem there.

Where I grew up in Los Angeles, the head of the Archdiocese in Los Angeles was very, very hostile — indifferent, if not openly hostile to the aspirations of African Americans. [He'd] come from the traditional leadership of the Catholic church, was Irish American, bedrock conservative, you know, I mean, very very distant, at least, from the concerns being voiced by African Americans at the time. Thought that they were — you know, I'm sure they thought they were communists, part of some left-wing conspiracy, this and that, so. But that really didn't help.

BOND: But at the same time [they] had this education system which had to be at least on a par with or superior to the public schools in Los Angeles and in most cities, so the church — ?

WILLIAMS: The good part of it is that in a lot of these churches — like the Cardinal here, I've worked with him. I got into trouble supporting vouchers, but the reason why I supported vouchers is because of personal history because I think that for us, the best education choice was going to the school we went to. I can't speak for everybody, but for us, it was important for my mother to have that choice. And I think it's important for parents to have that choice in other cities and so even though there is this troubled, kind of checkered history, nowadays a lot of the church leaders have gone overboard to keep the schools — the Catholic schools — open in the inner city knowing that it's a great avenue of upward mobility for kids, so the old — the Cardinal who died became a good friend of mine. You know, even though they were losing money left and right, kept the schools open because of what they were doing.