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Book, Website Compile 14 Years of Lessons Learned About Black Leadership

Feb 02, 2015 |
Phyllis Leffler, Professor of History

Over the past 14 years, University of Virginia history professors Phyllis Leffler and Julian Bond, the latter an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, recorded 51 video interviews with African-American leaders, exploring their experiences and the lessons they learned.

Their goal: Discover and catalog formative experiences of black leaders and core characteristics of leadership that can inform and inspire the next generation.

The project culminated this month with the publication of “Black Leaders on Leadership: Conversations with Julian Bond,” published by Palgrave Macmillan, and a companion website that includes the full video interviews with all 51 subjects.

“Black leaders’ stories are narratives of hardship, determination and success situated in local communities and national culture,” Bond writes in the book’s foreword. “The lessons shared in this book acknowledge the burdens of race, but also celebrate the ability of individuals to overcome adversity. This is ultimately an exploration of African-American leadership in America through the eyes and words of the leaders themselves.”

Julian Bond, Professor Emeritus of History

Leffler said the book is not a nostalgic look at a bygone era. “Today, with the 50th anniversaries of major events and legislation of the Civil Rights Movement upon us and issues involving African-American justice and equality at the heart of national discussion, there remains an urgent need for leadership – not only among African-Americans, but among all Americans,” she said. “Black leaders have so much to teach us.”

Among those interviewed during the 14-year project were civil rights leaders Oliver Hill, Dorothy Height and Robert Moses; political leaders L. Douglas Wilder, James Clyburn and Barbara Lee; educators Geoffrey Canada, Johnnetta Cole and Mary Futrell; accomplished entrepreneurs Earl Graves and Vernon Jordan; poet Nikki Giovanni and choreographer Bill T. Jones; and rising young black leaders Bakari Sellers and  Katori Hall.

Interviewees were asked to reflect on the importance of black leadership in the struggle for civil rights, on the experiences and the relationships that shaped their lives and philosophies, and about historical milestones in race relations. They also were asked about how to best foster effective future leaders.

Across many interviews, common threads emerged about the importance of strong mentors or role models, and the benefits of extended but close-knit communities that rest upon a foundation of shared responsibility and pride. The interviews also revealed a frequently shared trait of sticking with principles in the face of adversity. And the vast majority of leaders understood their responsibility to “lift as you climb” – to reach down and support those less fortunate.

“Families we today would call dysfunctional nonetheless often provided the ground under the feet of our leaders, because there was always one person who provided stability and inspiration,” Bond said. “Some African and African-American family patterns, often considered aberrant, become sources of strength.”

Preparation, attitude, action and goals are key elements of leadership, Bond and Leffler found, and recurring themes include the importance of family members, education, networks and the need to educate young black men to be safe in America through racial socialization.

“The stories of a cross-section of African-American leaders will inspire both black and non-black audiences to think about the kind of America they want to live in,” Leffler said. “Most are exemplars of strength, dedication, determination. This project – and the book – bring together their personal and public lives, often for the first time.”  

The project started in 2000 as an initiative of the Institute for Public History, housed in the History Department of the College of Arts & Sciences in the 1990s.

“It was my idea to develop a project in oral history with Julian Bond tied to African-American history and to bring valued leaders to the University,” Leffler said. “Julian, who became a full-time member of the faculty in 1998, was interested in the idea, and we decided to focus the project around leadership.”

The Darden School of Business provided additional support and a studio. “In the early stages of the project, our guests stayed at Sponsors Hall, and we organized lunches and tapings there,” Leffler said. “As time went on, and it became more difficult to book the Darden studio, we became more engaged with the Strategic Communications group at U.Va. They graciously helped with taping of public lectures given by some of the interviewees, and eventually with the private tapings for the ‘Explorations in Black Leadership’ series.” 

During a summer of planning, student interns researched literature on leadership and helped generate the core questions. Leffler organized and oversaw the project, arranged the briefing books, researched the subjects, made arrangements and asked follow-up questions. Bond conducted the interviews – except for his own, conducted by Leffler.

“Without him, there would have been no project, because so many of the people who came did so because of their admiration – in some cases, veneration – for him,” Leffler said. “And the exchanges between two people with shared histories, or with shared sensibilities, allowed for incredibly rich interactions and taped discussions.”

Leffler saw it as a public history project involving people who had lived through segregation and had helped change the trajectory of the country. Once the technology was available to digitally archive the material, working with the Digital Media Lab, the website portion of the project was born. The book also interacts with the website.

“The book I have written uses the technologies for which U.Va. is so well-known, through the inclusion of QR codes that allow the reader to link directly back to the website,” Leffler said. “The autobiographical stories woven into the book with the use of QR codes provides an unprecedented opportunity to see and hear about the trajectory of the lives of African-American leaders as they lived them with all the challenges, obstacles, opportunities and triumphs.”

Leffler had planned to stop at an even 50 subjects.

“We ended up with 51 because of the sudden availability of Robert Moses, who was coming to give a talk at the Miller Center,” Leffler said. “He was our last interviewee.  Julian Bond had already retired, but graciously agreed to come back to participate in this interview.”

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