Leading the way
Explorations in Black Leadership charts a new course for public history studies.
Photo by Jack Mellott.
What makes people leaders? Are they simply born that way or do circumstances — a particular time, place and situation — come together to create leaders?
Explorations in Black Leadership, an ambitious oral history project led by history professors Julian Bond and Phyllis Leffler, explores the nature of leadership, making clear that every leader has a unique story to tell. Begun in 2000 by Leffler, director of U.Va.’s Institute for Public History, and Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the project features videotaped interviews with African-American leaders, many of whom were involved in the civil rights movement.
Their stories cover a broad range of experiences in such diverse areas as law, education, religion, the arts and politics. Collectively, their reminiscences enlarge our understanding not only of the movement itself but also of how the past affects public life today.
Though the civil rights movement is often referred to as a thing of the past, Bond and Leffler believe that its lessons are vital to the nation’s present and future. In sharing their personal experiences, the interviewees reflect on the types of leadership needed for the future. Conducted chiefly by Bond himself, the interviews include what he called “a real mix of the well known and the unknown” figures associated with the civil rights movement. “They’re all people who took risks and changed America,” he noted. Most of the interviews have been taped on Grounds.
Explorations in Black Leadership has obvious appeal for educators, students and researchers. But it also holds great promise for the general public. Rather than following a formal question-and-answer format, the interviews have a relaxed, conversational feel, which makes sense given that Bond has longstanding professional and personal connections with many of his subjects. “That’s what makes these histories so rich,” Leffler said. “They are deeply personalized recollections, honest exchanges about people’s individual journeys.”
To reach the largest possible audience, Leffler has developed an easy-to-navigate Web site to house the videotaped interviews as well as transcripts that appear beside the video box and biographies of each person. One can watch Bond talking with such noted leaders as civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, poet Nikki Giovanni, comedian Dick Gregory, Richmond attorney Oliver Hill and Elaine Jones, a U.Va. School of Law graduate and former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
By making the interviews and supporting materials so accessible, Bond believes that Explorations in Black Leadership achieves one of the primary aims of public history. “We are collecting stories that otherwise might not be collected. And we are unique in our presentation of these interviews. We allow people to compare Person X with Person Y. I hope as many people as possible will gravitate to it and use it.”
Among the Web site’s user-friendly features is a search function that allows visitors to zero in on portions of the interview related to a specific topic or event. While the site currently features 24 interviews, that list will soon grow. “We have about 30 interviews now, but it’s an ongoing project,” Leffler noted. “This spring and summer, we will load more to the site.”
Explorations in Black Leadership has managed to gather this wealth of materials on what Leffler described as “a shoestring budget.” Initially co-sponsored by U.Va.’s Institute for Public History and the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, the project stretches its modest operating funds to pay costs related to interviewees’ travel to U.Va. and Web site development.
Despite its emphasis on African-American leaders, Bond sees the project’s message as extending well beyond the subject of race. “For all Americans, there’s something to be learned about leadership from talking with someone who’s been a leader,” he said. “I believe that circumstance, not race, is what really distinguishes the listening experience with these interviews. Listeners, both black and white, can gain so much from these stories.”
Leffler agrees. The interviewees, she said, “have been enormously reflective about their backgrounds and experiences. They focus on what it has meant to fight for their ideals and their determination to reach for the larger principle of justice in America. This effort is not just for black Americans, but for all of us.”
During a recently aired segment of “Insight,” a live talk-show produced by WMRA, a National Public Radio affiliate in Harrisonburg, Va., Bond listened closely as the show’s host replayed a portion of Bond’s interview with Elaine Jones. In it, Jones told of a childhood experience that sparked her interest in becoming a lawyer as an adult. Reflecting on Jones’s powerful account of having to appear alone in court to answer a judge’s questions about a family matter, Bond said, “Some of these stories are heartbreaking. But it’s so great to hear these things about people’s lives. To understand why Elaine became a lawyer, you have to go back to that 8-year-old girl. I’m moved just sitting here listening to it again.”