About Our Guest
Phyllis Leffler received a B.A. from Queens College of the City University of New York in 1966, an ?M.A .from The University of Sussex, England in 1967, and a ?Ph.D. from Ohio State University in1971.
Her fields of specialization include Public History, the History of University of Virginia,. and Oral history.
An abbreviated list of her diverse Publications include:
“Black Families and Fostering of Leadership,” Ethnicities, (2011)
“American Memory on the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Is There Common Ground in American Museums?” in Museum History Journal,( 2010).
“Mr. Jefferson’s University: Women in the Village!,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, (2007). *(for which she Received the William M. E. Rachel award for best essay of 2007)
“Women and Southern Tradition at the University of Virginia,” Iris, (2000)
“To Seek the Peace of the City: Jewish Life in Charlottesville(co-created with Jeffrey Hantman and Carol Ely) ” An Exhibit (1994): Albemarle County Historical Society.
A short list of her Professional honors and Activities include:
Reader, Ron Brown Scholars Program, (1998 to present)
Southern Jewish Historical Society, Chair, Grants Committee
Editor: Museum Review section of Southern Jewish History(‘09-present)
Grants Committee, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, (1992, 1996)
1998 Distinguished Faculty Service Award, Hillel Foundation
N.E.H./N.C.P.H. Institute on Teaching Public History, (1984)
Professor Leffler has just completed a book related to the Explorations in Black Leadership project, co-directed with Julian Bond. This book creates an analytical framework for the stories of close to 50 Black leaders interviewed as part of an oral history project.
She is also continuing to explore the history of The University of Virginia during the 20th century, with a particular interest in understanding how the university evolved during the course of this century to become the leading public institution in America.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I want to welcome you again to our program Politics Matters. Today we are continuing with part two of our series on the origins of Civil Rights activism and the life committed to the pursuit of social justice as seen through the optic of the ambitious and inspiring oral history project Explorations in Black Leadership. And once again we’re very grateful to have as our guest Professor Phyllis Leffler, professor of History at the University of Virginia. Welcome back, Phyllis.
Phyllis Leffler: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jan Paynter: Professor Leffler has just completed a book related to the Explorations in Black Leadership project which was co-directed with Julian Bond.
This book creates an analytical framework for the stories of close to 50 Black leaders interviewed as part of an oral history project. She’s also continuing to explore the history of the University of Virginia during the 20th century with a particular interest in understanding how the University evolved during the course of this century to become a leading public institution in America. I’m really delighted to have you back here to continue this discussion.
Phyllis Leffler: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
Jan Paynter: For the second part of our series, Phyllis, I’ve again selected four remarkable Black leaders. It’s always difficult to narrow it down but we have in the interest of time and if there are other leaders that you want to bring in, feel free to introduce them, absolutely. But they are Congressman and 60s activist John Lewis, educator Geoffrey Canada, journalist William Raspberry and correspondent Gwen Ifill. One value, Phyllis, that emerges strongly through the interviews is the importance of infusing one’s life with bravery and principle, of daring to commit, the imperative to act on core beliefs if one is to become a genuine leader. Let’s talk for a moment about Congressman John Lewis in this regard. We spoke about this a little bit in the last program but for people who haven’t seen it, I wanted to get in a little bit to the idea of the necessity of disturbing things.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, you know, John Lewis himself came from a very poor family and as he pursued his own education and then got involved in the Civil Rights Movement and embraced the sense of beloved community and the social gospel, I think the meaning of that concept juxtaposed against the—the deprivation from which he had come, maybe not a deprivation of love, I don’t think there was any deprivation of love in his family, but just the physical conditions and the socio-economic background. In some ways I think he did not feel he had any choice but to do what he did. But the bravery and courage part, my goodness. He put himself in harm’s way so many different times in so many different ways, from the sit-in movement to being on the Freedom rides, to being beaten up in different marches. I mean, I think he was beaten up 20 or 30 times; had his skull cracked open, went to jail multiple times, and he says, as part of that, which is so remarkable, that in some ways the going to jail and the being beaten up was empowering, right, was liberating.
Jan Paynter: That’s an incredible statement.
Phyllis Leffler: So how can it be? How can you feel liberated by that? I mean, I think in part it’s that you discover that you can survive, that you can survive and that you then become a kind of role model for others about how to do that. And I think so many of the Civil Rights workers felt that way. They might not have experienced quite the kind of brutality that John Lewis did, but I think they did feel liberated. Julian Bond himself says going to jail for the first time was liberating.
Jan Paynter: There’s also—I know Lewis talks about, very movingly about feeling “married” to the movement, which is another very powerful sense that you get of how important, how deeply important the movement was to people personally. The lives of these Black leaders help us to think about things in a different way. Would you talk a little bit about Lewis’s idea of the American house and what that is?
Phyllis Leffler: So Lewis says, at one point, that we all live in the American house and that his ambition, his motivation is to create a house which is a kind of umbrella that embraces all people and I think it’s an aspirational statement of what America needs to become, that is, we’re all in this house together, we’re all in this country together, we all need to find the mechanisms and the ways to support one another and that by doing so we have a stronger family, we have a stronger house. So it’s a wonderful metaphor. Obviously I don’t think we’re there yet as a society but it’s certainly a motivating metaphor for him, that that’s his life work he sees as being the work to build this American house.
Jan Paynter: And looking at the idea of the house, talk to us a little bit about William Raspberry’s idea of the many-windowed views that he espouses.
Phyllis Leffler: Right and William Raspberry, I would say that I think he has the same goal as Lewis but I think he’s coming at it from a different way. I think Lewis is establishing a concept—an aspirational concept that suggests that we are all the same, that fundamentally we all want the same thing and we’re the same. But Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize winning, Washington Post journalist for so many years, I think he is acknowledging a kind of multi-cultural heritage in that in fact we are all different and so his sense of the many windows is tied to the concept that even within our own personas we are multiple people and we have multiple goals sometimes that are in conflict with one another and sometimes that support one another. When he had his interview with Julian Bond, he talked about how looking through many different windows, recognizing that we’re inside this house together but people looking in at us don’t necessarily know what we’re about. So I think what he was trying to suggest is that in his role as journalist he needs to approach the other with a very open mind and to sort of try to understand what the other is thinking in order to be able to have a conversation.
Jan Paynter: That’s so interesting to see both Gwen Ifill and William Raspberry, the late William Raspberry’s, involvement in journalism and how that this furthers the idea of mission and how they each in their different ways in a sense use journalism to witness what is happening in the country. In his case, he dealt with crime, poverty, economic issues. Gwen Ifill talks about the importance in journalism of being a good listener, which is something I think that the Black people in the Black community and leaders become acutely good at, which is listening and observing because again this comes to the idea we haven’t discussed precisely which is the role of the outsider and how that shapes a leader. I wonder if you’d talk about that.
Phyllis Leffler: Yeah. And I also want to say that both Gwen Ifill and William Raspberry are African-American role models who are working within the context of a majority society. William Raspberry’s not writing for a Black paper, he’s writing for a national syndic—he’s writing for the Washington Post but a column that is nationally syndicated. Gwen Ifill is representing PBS, right, and both through Washington Week and the NewsHour. So I think they’re acutely aware of the fact that they are not simply writing for the Black community and that they really need to find a voice that—in which they will become models in and of themselves for responsibility, for self empowerment, but not lose sight of their roots but be able to not simply represent one segment of the society. And so I think that they are—that they share that in common and in a sense they do bear witness to some of the problems that they see in the society. William Raspberry did regularly in his columns but at the same time he really is a kind of moderate voice. He is modeling the incredible importance of individual responsibility. And Gwen Ifill said something of the same in her interview, how she as an individual reporter/journalist needs to be responsible personally for understanding the issues that she’s going to cover and look at it through the lens perhaps of an outsider but be able to develop the empathy for that. And while we’re on that subject, I want to say that Nikki Giovanni, oddly enough, as the poet, as the voice that’s speaking to the Black community but beyond the Black community, also emphasizes this sense of in a sense being a loner, of being an outsider but also being individually responsible for her own voice. She says in the interview that she doesn’t believe in role models per se, that she is her own person and she speaks for herself. Well, Gwen Ifill doesn’t really fully speak for herself. I think Gwen Ifill feels the need, in a sense, to not share her own perspectives always but to represent the other. William Raspberry on the other hand does speak for himself but wants to be very conscious of this larger lens of the larger society.
Jan Paynter: One of the things that I found that you mentioned Nikki Giovanni so moving, many people—people who find themselves in conditions of poverty are by necessity live in small spaces, physical small spaces and one of the things I found interesting is that Giovanni talks about how you, in a sense, carve out a place for yourself in a confined area and to me it was very interesting then that she chose poetry as a way of, in a sense, using—making the best of the page to convey powerful ideas in a small space. I had a friend who was Japanese and she talked about being poor and living in an overcrowded society and she said, “You know, you look for privacy. You look for finding a way to carve out space and you go behind your eyes, so when you look at people, you’re actually behind there even though they think you’re looking at them”, and I thought that was interesting.
Phyllis Leffler: That’s a beautiful metaphor.
Jan Paynter: It is.
Phyllis Leffler: It’s a beautiful metaphor but I think writers especially need to do that because it’s a very lonely profession and you need to find that quiet space, whether it’s a small space, whether—you need to find that space where you can go internally to find your own voice. I mean, Virginia Wolfe said that, right, in finding room of one’s own. So it’s not limited to the Black community, perhaps it’s more reflective of the particular leadership place or the particular career that is leading them in this direction.
Jan Paynter: Ah, that’s interesting. In working through these really fascinating interviews, Phyllis, the listener comes away with new thinking—new ways of thinking about what constitutes power and to speak with Martin Luther King. One of the things that I love that he says is that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice”, and it strikes me in many of these interviews that there’s a great deal of that spirit that comes forth. And I wondered if there were particular interviewees that maybe spoke to that idea.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, they—in so many different ways they all speak to that idea.
Jan Paynter: They do. They absolutely do.
Phyllis Leffler: And I could go through the entire litany of people and demonstrate that but let’s just talk for example, in this case it might seem like an odd comparison of Geoffrey Canada in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. Geoffrey Canada of course is an educator. He grew up in the South Bronx. He talks about in his growing up years the trauma of seeing friends killed on the street in front of him and he goes on, ultimately gets a PhD in education from Harvard and he comes back to Harlem and his goal is to create a safe zone for children and sort of to empower through love, right, to empower these children through his…
Jan Paynter: That’s a wonderful example.
Phyllis Leffler: …commitment and determination that their lives are going to be better than the lives that he saw among his classmates and that to some degree he and his brothers lived themselves. And it’s the need to sort of make a difference in your own community, need to empower from the ground up, which is I think fundamentally comes from a deep, deep sense of commitment to community and to love for community and I think somebody like Geoffrey Canada recognized that—that we were losing a generation of children by not seeing what the needs of those communities were and determining that you were going to go into those communities and meet every possible need, whether they are healthcare needs or whether they are counseling needs or whether they are parental needs, that his goal was going to be to empower this community and to bring these children along. He couldn’t do the work that he does unless he loved those children as if they were his own.
Jan Paynter: That was very moving about him, too, and you mentioned the violence that he witnessed and the one very poignant story when he notes that a young boy was making noise and because he wasn’t quiet, a man came out and shot him dead. And again speaking to the larger theme of silencing voices that’s so powerful for Black people and the powerful ways in which they find their voice and speak to injustice is wonderful. Also with Canada, the importance of education and holistic education as you reference so that you’re actually thinking about questions of health and economic issues with the kids so that they really have a foundation from which to succeed, that isn’t simply one pointed. It was wonderful.
Phyllis Leffler: And we also have somebody like William Raspberry then who I think from the same place—so his experience is very different. He grows up not in the South Bronx but in Okolona, Mississippi, a tiny, tiny little community, which he says was an education community. His parents were educators, he knows how fundamental that education was to him. He says in his interview that they were incredibly poor in the community, incredibly deprived and their segregated existence, he actually uses the word awful, was awful but he says the education was so rich. So what does he do after he gets close to the end of his career is he goes back to Okolona and he creates this program called Baby Steps in which he also sees education as fundamental and I again think it’s the love that he felt that came from his own parents, the love that he felt that allowed him to escape this community, he’s now going back and taking the young parents who didn’t have the benefits that he had and trying to pull them along by demonstrating what parenting involves and how to introduce education into your home long before the children ever go to school.
Jan Paynter: Oh, this is very, very striking and also that—this—we come back to this sense of mission, of giving back, that’s so integral in the upbringing and the mentoring of Black leaders never to stand on the sidelines but to dare to change. In what ways, Phyllis, has that—this project led you to a greater understanding of how one might conjoin principles with politics?
Phyllis Leffler: Well, I think one of the most powerful aspects of these interviews as a collective whole for me goes back to something that my good friend Julian Bond regularly says whenever he’s asked is, he always says, when young people say to him, “We don’t have the opportunities you had. We can’t make the kind of difference you made. What should we do?”, he always says, “It doesn’t matter, just start. Just do something. Just do it.” And I think that what I’ve learned from these series as a whole is that wherever you are in life, whether you’re young, whether you’re older, whether you’re a poet, whether you’re an educator, whether you’re a lawyer, the principled response is to see where the larger issues are and to just jump in, just to make the difference, just to get started. As John Lewis says, perhaps to “trouble the waters”. But you can do it in so many different ways and so for me, one of the most meaningful aspects of this series is to see the multiple ways in which people acting on their principles could affect the larger society and by extension I think it sets up lessons for all of us regardless of where we are. These people aren’t just speaking to other Blacks in America, they’re speaking to all of us and they’re speaking to every ethnic group that comes to this country, they’re speaking to the ethnic groups that perhaps feel somewhat disadvantaged in the country. I think they’re modeling—they’re modeling for every possible group, both rich and poor, both minority and majority, because their stories are just so—such exemplars of how you can make this kind of a difference.
Jan Paynter: I found when I was listening to the interviews and people who listen to like John Lewis talk about listening to Martin Luther King and feeling that they—he was speaking directly to them. And as I watched and listened to these interviews, Phyllis, I felt that same sense that just what you’re talking about that these are lessons, these are signposts that I need to really take in and absorb in my own life so that each person watching them can learn how to make a difference, what their particular mission is to return to the idea that we started the two programs with. And so often for the sake of expediency and pragmatism we sever principles from politics, not just in this country but everywhere. The Explorations in Black Leadership project examines the various ways in which we do transmit and pass on these principles of standing up for what we believe and that standing up really is the making of us. I think that’s quite true and these courageous and creatively involved individuals each in their own way demonstrate that larger social point again and again as you listen to them. So I think it’s a tremendous gift that you and Julian Bond have given to us all through this wonderful project Explorations in Black Leadership.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, thank you. It’s been an absolute highlight of my professional career to be—to have done this.
Jan Paynter: We’re also put in mind of Martin Luther King’s idea that problems of racism and war and poverty, and we sort of touched on the need to be holistic in our thinking, that these are inextricably intertwined. Now this takes me back to our previous programs with your colleague Professor Paul Gaston and the ideas contained in Henry George’s ideas in this wonderful book Progress in Poverty, that for a society to thrive all three of these issues must be addressed. And again, Martin Luther King speaks about the importance of—we may have touched on this in our last program—on not being afraid to ask questions of our society, to disturb the order as we’ve been talking about and so that we can make America what it ought to be. And in thinking about this, again the words of King come to mind which I wanted to close with today. And he says, “And wherever men and women straightened their back up, they are going somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent”.
Phyllis Leffler: Oh, it’s beautiful. Yeah.
Jan Paynter: Thank you again, Phyllis, so much for doing this series today. I’m deeply grateful.
Phyllis Leffler: I’m thrilled to be here. I really admire your program.
Jan Paynter: Our thanks to everyone at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on the history of Civil Rights there for you. You will also find there a comprehensive archive of all prior Politics Matters programs which you may watch in their entirety at any time. We’ll also be posting extended versions of interviews online on our site as well and will shortly be adding more content. I want to encourage everyone watching today to go to the website for this remarkable interview series Explorations in Black Leadership. As you can see, the website is located at the bottom of your screen. We will also be posting this web address on our Politics Matters site as well. We’re in the process of revamping our website which will be completed within the month and we will be including extended versions of recent interviews in the archive as well. As always, we are particularly interested in hearing from you with any questions, concerns and ideas for future programs. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We air on PBS WVPT on the last Sunday of every month at 11:30 am. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.