Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Educational Experiences and Race

BOND: I want to go back to Brown v. Board of Education again. Now, you go to an integrated elementary school, which surely is one of the fruits of Brown. Then you go to South Carolina State College, a historically black college. What kind of values did you learn at these separate institutions? The integrated school, the all-black South Carolina State College -- what did learn there? I don't mean the reading, writing, arithametic. What did you learn at these places that has shaped your life?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's a very good question. I've never been asked that before. You know, it actually put in my father's teachings in place that people are the same all over. You know, I have to tell you this, it's no secret. I mean, I say it all the time, people think it's crazy. I've never experienced racism. Ever. Never been called the N word. Never been denied an opportunity because of what people say about the hue of your skin.

When I was in high school, I interacted with people. I networked, we studied together, so much so that they elected me as class president. They elected me as student body president by a landslide. I was able to build real relationships. They would come to my home to study. I would go to their homes. So, my father's vision for us early on, before I ever had this experience, came to life. It came to life.

Now, of course, there are bad people, but I had a wonderful experience because our high school is probably 50-50. 50 percent white, 50 percent black, but all the things that we talked about, how people said they were spat on and the kinds of things that were happening, you were not invited to do this. My father says the greatest weapon to breaking down any barrier is the human heart, how you feel about yourself. And my father taught us to have a lot of pride and a lot of self-confidence.

Now, you flip that to my college experience. It also goes to tell you what my father said about just because someone looks like you doesn't mean they share your value system or they want what's best for you. I remember -- I think this is a pretty good story. I remember when I was in college, my parents and I reached a pact that as long as I maintained a 3.3 grade point average, I would never have to work a job on college campus and that they would pay my education out of their pockets. And, fortunately, my parents paid cash money for my education for all four years, but I had to maintain a 3.0.

So, I remember my rising junior year in college, I had become pretty bored with academics. I just got tired of studying. It was no longer no fun. So I said to my father, I always had to negotiate with him, I said, "You know, we need to do something else here. I want to run for office. I want to run for student body president. I want to make history. I want to be the first rising junior to ever win student body presidency at the school." He said, "Boy, you are going to have a tough time." He said, "You're a Republican." He said, "I want to tell you something. You are about to have an experience you never had." I said, "Oh, no, I think I'll do well." And so I'll never forget when I announced that I was going to run, one of the deans, I am not going to call his name, God bless his soul, he is no longer with us, called me into his office and said, "I hear you are thinking about running for student body president." I said, "Yep. I am thinking about running. I talked to my parents about it. They think it is a good idea." He said, "Well, you know, I am your friend and I have been your advisor since you've been here and I think you are quite capable, but we don't think you should run." And I said, "Why don't you think I should run?" He said, "Well, we think you are a little too dark."

BOND: Oh really?

WILLIAMS: Yes! This is what he says, this is what this dude said to me. But, see, the good thing about it is my father didn't want me to run in the first place and I said, "This guy -- " I could not believe it. But you know at South Carolina State, you had to submit a photo at a certain period to get into the university, absolutely. The guy told me I was too dark. Oh, I said, oh God, Daddy will get a kick out of this." So, I called my father. I said, "You will not believe this. This dude said to me that I was too dark to run for student body president." He said, "You've got to run! Why did I tell you? That is ignorance."

So my father financed the campaign and came down and helped me campaign and I won by 64 votes. So it was just sort of the reverse of it, but still, the majority of the kids voted me in. They voted me in for a second term by a landslide and I still saw the good there. But see, it can come from anywhere. Now, what if someone white had said that to me? It would have been racism, right?

BOND: Sure.

WILLIAMS: But my father's attitude was it's all the same. It's denying you an opportunity.

BOND: Well, it's really some kind of racism in both instances.


BOND: So, if a dean says it to you and some white guy says it to you, it's the same thing.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, so I guess it's racism. I guess we live in a society today that blacks cannot be racist because they have no power. I mean, you can have power when you influence people. If I go to you for advice and I'm asking you to give me the best advice because you have my best interest at heart, why would you give me advice that I am going to suffer from in the long run? Yeah, so racism can take many forms. So, yes, I guess that was racism.

BOND: And the dean had power?

WILLIAMS: Oh, he had power, but he didn't have power over me because I wasn't weak-minded. I had a father. What if I had not had a father? If I had just had a mother in the household and I had no strong male figure in my life, there's no telling what could have turned out, but that motivated me. I was excited and we won. And he apologized.

BOND: Oh, really?


BOND: Well, at least he was big enough to apologize.

WILLIAMS: Yes. He did apologize.