Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The Brown Decision and Segregation's Immorality

BOND: Armstrong Williams, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for inviting me.

BOND: We're very pleased to have you here. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision. Now, it occurred five years before you were born, but what was the discussion, if any, in your family or what was the feeling about what this might mean?

WILLIAMS: My parents had quite a different take on the government and the issues of race. My father, actually in the discussions, actually thought it was ridiculous that the highest court in the land even had to come to the conclusion or discussion that separate but equal was immoral. He always saw things in terms of moral and immoral. And they'd had the discussion to make a decision to try to make the facilities equal. And his attitude was, "Son, you know, they can try for the next twenty or thirty years to make the facilities equal, but the only way that my children are going to have a quality education is that I got to ensure that it happens. I got to make sure that I'm involved with what happens before they ever enter kindergarten -- by reading to them, having them read to us, reading the newspaper, going to the library. I will never trust the government to ever educate my children or to make me believe that they are going to make people equal. How are you going to have from human slavery to de jure segregation and now this Brown v. Board and then we are going to get into the Civil Rights Movement and how do you think that we are going to be equal? You cannot legislate the mentality of people when people thought in the beginning that you are unequal and therefore you are not worthy to sit next to their kid because that kid was white or something else." As he discussed it, he discussed it in a different way. "I've got to make sure that my children are educated and have a better chance at life than what I had."

BOND: Where did this idea come from in his family? Why do you think he felt that way?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, my father and mother had deeply-held Christian values. My father often talked about the stories that were passed along to them about how people who considered themselves to be God-fearing would go to church on Sunday, but yet after church could have a picnic and cut up their brethren into pieces and place them in a jar and have just left the altar of God and how could anyone who claimed they believed in God, their actions were just that of brutality, something that goes against all the teachings that they proclaimed to believe in. And so his attitude was, is that it's going to be quite some time before you can ever change the hearts of men who allowed a Constitution in place, that in ideas and in principles, we were equal, but they did not have the moral turpitude or the moral courage to stand up and say, "We have to learn from the brutal dictatorships of the past to make people have equal access. We don't have to give someone an advantage, but don't give them a disadvantage." So my father never had a whole lot of faith in the government and had a whole lot of faith with people who subscribed to a certain faith and who had certain power. There was nothing in his history that would make him believe that they would do anything that was good in the long run. He figured long after he would leave this earth that things would be better, but he did not see it happening within the next thirty or forty years during that time.

BOND: But at the same time when you write about the Brown decision on the fiftieth anniversary and the fiftieth anniversary year, you write that "life was far better for my brothers and sisters than when I came along." How did your brothers and sisters -- you're from a family of nine -- how did they benefit, if at all, from the Brown decision?

WILLIAMS: Well, separate but equal, the notion was is that when the decision was rendered, is that you can no longer believe that just because you're separate, you've got to make you equal. Many of these institutions were still unequal, unequal in terms of what they had access to, in terms of the teachers, and even just in the rural part of the world that we lived in. I mean, we did not have access to the kind of tax base as a lot of people who had a certain kind of affluency had. Obviously my father thought it was a good thing that people were beginning to understand what many of them had known for a long time -- that racism and discrimination and bigotry of any kind is a moral sin and the stain of this country and that we all would have to pay a price for the oppressor and the oppressed.

I think my father's attitude was, what he learned was that as the government was giving all this rhetoric about making people equal, what he needed to do was to find a farm, find an institution where he could raise his children, sort of like an incubator so that he can influence their value system, their work ethic, their discipline, their routine, to teach them how to work, to teach them how to fish as he was building his farm. You know, my parents had a two hundred fifty acre farm that they bought back during the 1940s. That farm still is in the family today, so my father felt the best weapon to bigotry and discrimination would be being truly free because my father grew up partly on a sharecropper's farm and he talked about the abuse, the humiliation.

He told the story about how his brother -- I don't know if you know this, you may know this, I mean, you are well read and you certainly have far more experience than most people on this issue -- is that I remember the story about his uncle who had worked on this man's farm and they only paid them once a year was when they were paid -- once a year. And he worked on this farm for a year, and I had a friend of mine recall this story for me recently and it reminded me of something that my father said, and at the end of the year, the owner of the farm said, "We owe you about forty six dollars." I mean, it was just an outrage. I mean, this man had worked. I mean, the blisters, the sores, for an entire year and for someone to say that you were only owed less than a hundred dollars was an insult. And from those lessons from my father watching his brothers, he said, "You know, I may have to endure that for some time, but the children I bring into the world will never endure that kind of humiliation and abuse because it could just destroy their self-esteem. I never even realized that every opportunity in America could possibly be their opportunity."