Julian Bond interviews U.S. Representative Gwen Moore in this installment of "Explorations in Black Leadership." The series is presented by the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia.
BOND: Congresswoman Gwen Moore, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for being with us.
MOORE: Oh, it is absolutely my pleasure, Chairman Bond.
BOND: No, it is our pleasure. I want to begin with some questions about the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. I know you were a little bitty child when that happened, but as you grew older and found out that the Supreme Court had said that segregated schools had to end, do you remember thinking anything about this and what this might mean?
MOORE: Oh, absolutely. I lived segregation, because even though the decision was made in 1954, as you know, Chairman Bond, there were extraordinary efforts made to not comply with the law. And so I went to segregated schools and when the order for desegregation hit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I then experienced what we called intact bussing, where they would bus the entire group of school children to a white school. We’d have separate lunch hours, separate recesses, and never was there any contact between our classroom of black children and the white children at the school.
BOND: You mean you’re segregated within this white school?
MOORE: Absolutely. We were bussed to white schools and never had any contact with the white students. I also experienced it as I grew older, as I matriculated through the school system, reached twelfth grade, felt that I was college bound, got into the classroom and found that we had inadequate — we didn’t even have separate but equal equipment — and it had a huge impact on my life. I became sort of rabble-rouser in high school, demanding a new school facility be built so that we could have adequate resources, and what really, really resonated with me about Brown v. the Board of Education specifically is that when I became a freshman in college at the tender of age of eighteen to — and discussed Brown v. the Board of Education — I found myself weeping to learn that there other eighteen-year-olds who were vehemently arguing against Brown v. the Board of Education, not as an exercise, but as really heart-felt feelings. And in my own naïve mind, I thought that all of the racists and bigots and segregationists were people who were going to die, and that — and here I found that at age eighteen I realized that I would have to live a lifetime of struggling against the same forces.
BOND: So now from today’s perspective in 2007, looking back over it, what do you think it means today?
MOORE: I think the struggle still remains, sadly. We find ourselves fighting against re-segregation of the schools as we have seen not only white flight but middle class flight out of inner cities, as we’ve seen a retreat from the desire to fund public education and to put more monies into vouchers and other sort of programs that continue the institution of separate but equal. And it sometimes feels frustrating to the civil rights warrior to know that you have got to continue to fight these same wars and these same struggles.
BOND: Now, when you were coming up, you lived a few blocks from West Division High School in Milwaukee, but the rules at the time required that you go to a segregated school.
MOORE: Absolutely. I lived seventeen blocks from an all-black high school and seven blocks from a predominantly white school. All of my brothers and sisters surnamed — had a different surname than I had, but my brothers were football jocks and basketball jocks and track stars, so when I arrived on the first day of school with a different surname I was then told that I lived in North Division’s district which was a predominantly black school.
BOND: And why didn’t they live there, too?
MOORE: Exactly. Well, I couldn’t play football.
BOND: I see. So, can you sort of say how to date the Brown decision has impacted your life?
MOORE: Well, I can tell you — I grew up I think in a very rich period of my life. I grew up at a time in the civil rights era where I learned to respect and regard the non-violent struggle for equal rights. And it was a very, very important time in my life and I think that it grounded me in issues of justice and equity and fairness that I carry with me today as an organizing principle for not only my personal life, but my life as an elected official.
BOND: Looking back over your life and beginning, you know, long before you became an elected official, who’ve been important influences in your life? Who’s helped to make you who you are today?
MOORE: Well, I can tell you that there have been — you know, the leadership that I grew up learning about Martin Luther King, obviously, was a very important figure in my mind. The Kennedys. Johnson, President Johnson, for sure, as I served as a VISTA. I benefited a great deal from the Great Society, from educational opportunity programs that he put into place and I came to admire him more and more throughout my life. But I want to say that my mother and father were tremendous influences in my life. My mother taught me everything that I have needed in this career as an elected official. She really worked, focused on my learning, getting good grades. She was a speech coach, so she taught us to write —
BOND: Is this why you speak so well today?
MOORE: Not as well as she spoke, but she taught us to write and to think and to do research far ahead of the time when we could go on the Internet and just sort of slap a paper together. We had to actually go and do the research and write speeches. And so my mother was a great influence on me and my father as well. My father had a third grade education. He was functionally illiterate, and he made me promise that I would get an education.
BOND: What about people — you mentioned these national figures — Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and others — what about other people in Milwaukee outside of your parents?
MOORE: I can tell you, there’s a woman, an octogenarian right now, Vel Phillips.
BOND: Oh, sure.
MOORE: She was the first everything and there was a tremendous impact made on me to see African Americans who were educated, who held leadership roles. They would come and judge the Elks’ oratorical contest or the Masons’ Oratorical Contest, show up at church, and this made a tremendous difference. It did inspire me to do some mentoring when I could because just chance meetings with these folk really imbued me with the idea that I, too, could rise above my circumstances.
BOND: And did the fact that Vel Phillips was a woman doing these things mean anything to you? Does that hold special resonance for you?
MOORE: Oh, absolutely, because as you know, I mean, there’s a two-fer being a black person and a woman in terms of the no self-esteem or low self-esteem that you experience in your communities. And seeing a black woman like Vel Phillips in leadership roles really, really enabled me to believe that I could do it. And she was so accessible and, you know, she wasn’t on some high throne and she wasn’t untouchable. And Vel Phillips, and Marcia Coggs was another black woman. My mother’s best friend was a social worker, had gone to college, had graduated from Hampton University. And I knew very few black men or women who had college degrees. We didn’t have historically black colleges and universities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so seeing these educated folks was really important to me because I knew that I was going to go to college. I had no idea how I was going to go, but I knew that I was a part of a group of people who could go to college.
BOND: What about Shirley Chisholm?
MOORE: Oh, absolutely. Shirley Chisholm was a tremendous — Shirley Chisholm made such a big difference in my life. I watched national politics. I read all of the time. That was the one thing I knew I could do and I could do well. Barbara Jordan. These are folks — and my mother was a reader and she read all of James Baldwin’s books — Louis Farrakhan, she kept up with what he was doing. My mother was an intellectual and so we were very very well versed in politics, particularly those politics relating to the black community.
BOND: Let me ask you about a white figure, a Milwaukeean, Father James Groppi.
MOORE: Oh, Father James Groppi. I marched with Father James Groppi.
BOND: You did. Well, good. What was the name of the group he had?
MOORE: The Commandos.
BOND: The Commandos, that’s right.
MOORE: And as a matter of fact, we just had an anniversary about three weeks ago of the Commandos and there has been an effort, and a sincere committed effort, to reorganize the Commandos because they really stood for community-oriented, not only policing but tutoring and looking out for the well-being of the community, standing up for people’s civil rights, and there’s been a re-commitment to those efforts.
BOND: Now, how did you choose your career? How did you become an elected official? I mean, what pushed you in that direction?
MOORE: Well, I can tell you, I never wanted to be an elected official. I always said I would never, ever, ever do it, but what pushed me toward it were my peers. I went to an all-black school. We knew nothing of our history other than we had been slaves. There was a tremendous desire to have black history, and my peers pushed me toward becoming their spokesperson for black history.
I was elected as president of the student council. I was elected as a vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Student Councils. I was a co-chair of a city-wide organization that focused on boycotting and really confronting segregation and racism in our school district called BOY, Black Organized Youth. And I was shy. People don’t believe that.
BOND: I don’t believe it.
MOORE: I know. No one ever believes it, but I was shy. But I felt the thrust and the push from my peers. They said, "Oh, she can talk good. Go on up there and talk for us," and so I did that.
BOND: Now, here’s a question we’ve asked many other people and some people say, "Well, it never happened," but I know it happened with everybody. When did you first say to yourself — probably not out loud, but to yourself — "I am a leader. Other people follow me. Other people look to me for leadership"? From what you’ve been saying, I’m guessing that it happened in high school and college.
MOORE: It absolutely did. And you know, my mom always wanted me to become an elected official and I would tell my mom, "Knock it off. If you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to go put you away in some sort of home." And eighteen months after my mother died, after she died — she wanted me to be an representative in the State Assembly. I was lying asleep in my bed and I dreamed that I was standing at a podium next to my state representative, and about six months later I was elected and I was screaming, "Yo, Ma, you’re supposed to be dead, leave me alone, I don’t want to do this." And I knew then. And so I feel that I have the kind of leadership.
It’s a stewardship of people. I feel that people really, really depend on me to speak for them, to really examine the issues and make sure that I am — it’s a stewardship. My leadership style is not to go it alone but to really, really try to put my ear to the ground and figure out where the masses of people are, what they need, what is in the best interest of people, to use my judgment and my intellectual prowess and to be able to articulate those things and make them work for me.
BOND: Let me push you a little bit on something. Now, you said you were shy.
MOORE: I am.
BOND: And it’s your peers who’re pushing you forward. Now, are they the people who pushed you forward into student government?
MOORE: Yes, they did. I mean, people — I was, I think, voted the most likely to become the first female president of the United States, and my peers pushed me to run for student council, pushed me to speak for them when we were planning to boycott the school for a new school facility, which we got. Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower was a book that we boycotted, marched, walked out of the school in order to get, and they always pushed me to the front to be the spokesperson.
BOND: But how’d you overcome this shyness? I mean, a shy person doesn’t do these things.
MOORE: I know. But, you know, I had a mother who had a very powerful personality and for years she had been putting me in front of people with her Easter plays and Christmas plays and James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones and I was required to perform in the church. And my mother —
BOND: Do you remember any of God’s Trombones?
MOORE: Oh, yes, I do.
BOND: Give me a really quick little bit.
MOORE: “And God stepped out on space, and He looked around and He said, 'I’m lonely. I’ll make me a world.' And as far as the eye of God could see, darkness covered everything, blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.”
BOND: Well, if you go on with that, I won’t do anything else but listen to that.
BOND: Let me ask you a philosophical question. Think about vision, philosophy and style. What is the difference between these for you? What is your vision? What is your philosophy? What is your style?
MOORE: I think vision requires people to see beyond what they can see immediately with their physical eye or even their imagination. It really requires almost having a third eye. It also requires that you have — that you’re willing to put the work and effort into something and you won’t necessarily see the results. It’s what Dr. King talked about when he said, “I have a dream that one day my four children will be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” that he was not going to make it to see that. Moses was not going to be able to see that and I think that that’s — you’ve got to be willing to work and not be able to participate necessarily in the spoils of it. That’s what vision is about — looking at the greatest good for the greatest number of people and being selfless, being able to take yourself out of the equation. I think leadership was your next —
MOORE: Philosophy. Philosophy is your own personal belief, and I mean, it’s — you have amassed information. It’s an intellectual process, I believe. And perhaps you have changed or altered your lifestyle based on some beliefs that you have about empirical — some empirical experiences that you have had.
BOND: And style?
MOORE: And style is how you present to the world. You know, I think — you know, some people are very quiet. Some people are loud. Some people — I’m sort of loud and how does that fit in with being shy? I think that I could really feel the push and the momentum and the inertia of all the people that I’m representing, and it sort of pushes out of me and it’s something that comes through me rather than from me. And people have a different way of presenting either their own philosophy or their vision, and style is something that is unique to that person’s character.
BOND: Now, vision — you described your vision. Has that vision changed over life? I mean, was it one thing at one point and another thing at another point, a third thing today?
MOORE: Not really, because I’ve had an organizing principle that probably came from being a child of the ’60s. You know, I’ve always felt that it was my responsibility to — I have had an organizing principle that I need to help the poor, that I need to help people who are less fortunate than I am, that I — I come from a background and that God has blessed me and elevated me for a purpose. And so I have stayed true to that purpose. You know, obviously I’ve learned more, I’ve experienced more. I’ve gained greater influence within the body politic. But I have remained really close to my roots. My head is not big and I’m really grateful for that.
BOND: Now, where’d this come from, this feeling that you’re responsible for other people. You mentioned God, so I’m guessing religion is one foundation of this, but is it the only foundation? Where do you get the idea that you’re responsible for other people?
MOORE: You know, it’s how I survive. You know, how do you — I think of myself as a pebble on the beach, and that’s okay with me. It’s okay for me — I am so concerned about not fulfilling what I consider to be my destiny, and I have always had a sense from the youngest ages that I was going to make a difference in the world. I studied every foreign language I could.
BOND: How’d this play out when you were young? I mean, what — how’d this manifest itself when you were young?
MOORE: You know, I tried to help everyone. I remember a poor little white girl, and her mother was an alcoholic and she was dirty and unkempt. I remember taking her home, and I was going to fix her up and so I put all this grease in her hair. I was going to straighten and curl her hair, and the more grease I put in it, the worse she looked. But, you know, I continued to try, you know, because I thought it was important to help her out.
I remember having a fight after school. A girl had picked on me all week long and followed me into an alley. And so we started fighting and I guess I hit her too hard and sort of knocked her out. And by then, the police sirens were wailing and the kids had scattered and the police got there and I was the only person there — you know, I and my nephew, you know, "Come on, get up," you know.
I was one of nine kids. I had a sister younger than me. I had nephews that, you know, were younger than me to take care of and, you know, we had to learn to share. There were a lot of us. And I learned to share early and learned to care about other people early on.
BOND: And so that large family made you feel some responsibility for the others from your early days?
MOORE: Oh, absolutely. Early on I felt very responsible for my sister who now is repaying me by bossing me around all the time. But early on, I felt this stewardship over other people.
BOND: Let me ask you about how leaders are made. Now, the common feeling is that leaders are made in three different ways — number one, great people cause great events. Number two, movements make leaders. And number three, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Does one of these fit you?
MOORE: Probably the second one. I very much feel that I was a product of a certain period, and I think that I beckoned to the call. There was — I remember once having a conversation with a very upper middle class person in a suburban part of my soon-to-be Senate district. And — you know, and I remember saying to him, you know, there are times when I feel like I should just get myself a fancy suit and a fancy briefcase and sell malt liquor or something and make six figures but then I stop and think about the condition of all those people who are depending on me — women and people of color and children and folks without jobs and inadequate health care. And then I sigh after thinking about how nice it would be just to be rich and live in a beautiful home. I sigh and think, "I’ve got to get back to work."
BOND: So, you said a moment ago that you were a ’60s person. I’m too old to be a baby boomer, I missed about five years — but you are baby boomer.
MOORE: I’m a baby boomer.
BOND: What is being a boomer and being a ’60s person? What does that mean to you?
MOORE: Well, I can tell you that we’re very — you know, and in the ’60s, I guess, things weren’t right unless something was wrong. And I went to meetings every night as a teenager and I thought about other people. I thought about the condition of the world. I think that things that we did in the ’60s — the African Americans have led the greatest civil rights movement on this planet. I think that we are or could be an example to the world. We look at all the conflicts around the world.
I am so committed, Chairman Bond, to making a difference literally in the world. And some of the experiences that I’ve had during the ’60s — the non-violent reconciliation of difference, the bringing folks together, things that the NAACP taught me, the things that I learned from a church and from community, the things that I learned during the Great Society, that we’re all in this boat together and that it’s our responsibility to look out for each other — I think this is a model for the future and I think it’s a model for the world.
BOND: Now, of course, neither of us can know the answer to this question but do you think if you were twenty years older or twenty years younger, that you’d be the same person you are?
MOORE: Well, I was the same person twenty years ago. I —
BOND: No, I mean, if you’d been born twenty years earlier.
MOORE: I definitely think that that may have made a difference. I think that I know people who are twenty years older than me, and they’re very much marked by that time — the Depression era — and there’re many people who operate out of a perspective of lack, a perspective of drought, even in terms of what they can give personally. I have had older people say that how much they wish they had been young during the era that I had been. I see people who are younger than me and who care only about themselves, that are only concerned about hitting the mall. And it’s sad to me when I think of all of the work that needs to be done in our communities, in America and indeed, in the world. When I look at what’s happening in Darfur, when I look at what is happening in eastern Europe, when I look at the needs of our own communities. There’re soldiers who return home and the majority of homeless folks are veterans. Well, I look at the kind of work that needs to be done in our community and I see some folks who are younger than I am not being concerned about the collective. I think it’s possible that I could’ve been different.
BOND: Now, you mentioned the civil rights movement as an important moment in your life, something we don’t have now as a reference point, at least not ongoing as it was then. What can we do to inculcate this kind of spirit with young people today as it was inculcated in your life then?
MOORE: Well, I can tell you that conditions are really developing and shaping up for our being able to replicate what we did in the ’60s. I think that there’s great inequality — financial inequality — among people. That there’s a great divestment in educational opportunity in this country as the economic opportunities are more and more polarized. We see a retreat on most of the commitments that have been made, that were made during the civil rights era.
We see a relentless effort, despite our having renewed the Voting Rights Act, to deny folk their vote. I only need to mention to you 2000, Florida. 2000, Ohio, 2004, for your total recall of what it has meant to not have full voting rights and I think the conditions are ripe for our being able to teach people the importance of not just being mad for one day, you know, not to say, "Oh, we have the highest incarceration rate of African American men in the world," where any community across the country, you can find unemployment among African American men anywhere from 40 to 55 percent, something worse than the Great Depression. Where you can see ordinary Americans of any color having no health care, dying or becoming tremendously ill from preventable diseases were there health care. We have the conditions to really teach people the efficacy of collective action.
BOND: Well, how can — well, I’m going to get this question later so let me skip by that for a minute and ask you a question about your own legitimacy as a leader. Is it grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
MOORE: Well, I —
BOND: Or it could be a combination?
MOORE: Right. You know, Chairman Bond, that’s a really important question. I think that it’s extremely important for a leader to be very, very connected to the needs of the masses and at the same time, it’s important for that leader to be able to articulate those things in a concise manner and to be able to make some judgments about what needs to be done when the collective can’t necessarily weigh in on an individual decision. I take that very seriously.
I have a vision obviously but it is not at all disconnected from where people are. I spend a lot of time trying to keep my ear to the ground and to stay in touch with where people are, and then I use my God-given talent and ability, my good book learning, all the information that I can get on a subject at any time and make some judgments. And they’re not always in sync with — you know, I don’t go out and take a poll and say, "I’m going to do this because 52 percent of the people want that," but I try to figure out what’s the greatest good for the greatest number and to not avoid people who don’t agree with me but go to them and walk them through the decision-making process as I experience it.
BOND: I wonder if there’s ever been an occasion in your public life where 80 percent of the people thought this and you said, "No, that’s wrong. I think this."
MOORE: Well, you know, there are some very contentious issues in my life. I mean, right now I think we’re on the threshold as a society and as a community of trying to figure out what we’re going to do. Politically, about gay rights, about immigration and, again, I have my organizing principle which says that equality is really important, that being humane is very, very important, that connecting people to families is very, very important and that’s an organizing principle that I can’t really compromise. And people know who I am. They understand who I am. And so I am going to look at those issues. I don’t walk into a community and say — with my pastors and say, "I’m against gay people because I know that’s what you expect me to say." I say that I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and gay people have rights.
BOND: Let me ask you about race consciousness. Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society, or can these be the same thing?
MOORE: They can be the same thing I told you earlier that my organizing principle from very, very young was to look out for those people who are the most disadvantaged. And the majority of African Americans in this country happen to fall into that category, but as a result of adopting that as an organizing principle, I have found myself being a champion of the rights of Southeast Asians in my community, of people of Hispanic descent, of Native Americans in my district, of gay people, and all kinds of people or minorities who need their rights protected because I think it’s extremely important in order to protect everybody’s rights to protect the rights of the minority.
BOND: Now, is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader — that is, a person of color who’s a leadership figure who transcends race?
MOORE: I think that I would be honored if people saw me that way and I think they do. I think I was elected to a congressional district and people were surprised. I was not surprised, and it was not a majority black-voting district, but it had been because I had been in public life for eighteen years and because I looked at issues beyond race. I could see the needs of people who were young. I could see the needs of people who were female. I could see the needs of people who needed opportunities or they needed a second chance as a non-violent offender despite race. And because I could operate across racial lines, I think I have been rewarded in my career with the confidence and the respect of people of other races.
You know, when I was younger I took every foreign language that I ever had the opportunity to do it, because it was always important to me to be able to communicate with people outside of my own race.
BOND: Now, having said that, do you have a different leadership style when you’re talking to, say, an all-black group, an all-white group, or a mixed group? Are you different in these situations?
MOORE: Well, I can tell you, I’ve said to my white constituents that I guess I’m just openly black, you know — that I am openly black and I had a Republican say to me once when I was going door to door, says, "You know, I’m going to vote for you because one thing I know about you is that you’re the same wherever you are, you’re in the suburbs, you’re in the ghetto." When I go to one door I have the same message that I have at any other door.
BOND: There’re some people who say if we focus on black leadership that we’re being divisive. Think so?
MOORE: Well, you know, I can tell you that I’m black and I’m a female and I remember making a vow that I would not be stereotyped as a black female, and I got to Madison and about a week later I was a black female because I am who I am. And I bring all those experiences to the table and they are rich, you know. As a woman I have raised kids, you know, I’ve been — the miracle of finding more flour at the bottom of the barrel and being able to make a meal out of it. My greatest accomplishments have come as a result of my experience as being a woman and being a poor woman — being able to juggle and to keep the electricity on and keep a roof over our heads and food in the house. These things are rich experiences that combined with my education, combined with my spirituality, and my own ability to communicate with other people, I think has made me an enriched elected official, something that advances human rights and not just the rights of black people.
BOND: Well, just the next question I’m going to ask — do you think black leaders have an obligation to help black people? Is there a point — if you do think so, is there a point where that obligation ends and you can pursue your own ambitions? Do you have a —
MOORE: Well, you know, I can tell you that I think a lot of people in this world suffer because folk advance themselves and then pull the ladder up behind themselves. When I look at every successful group, there are people who reach back and help their own folk. In my own community, we have benevolent organizations who are Polish and during Katrina, they rushed down there and helped Polish folk out of that catastrophe. I feel it’s extremely important, as W. E. B. Du Bois might’ve said, for the talented tenth of us to remember the least of those in our race. And if we lift up poor black people, you’ll be surprised how many of the people we will bring along as well.
BOND: Very quickly, because our time is running out — how can we make sure we have the most effective leaders tomorrow, the next day, years ahead? How can we make sure new leaders come up?
MOORE: I think it’s important to hold leadership accountable, you know, in my time and prior to my time, too many black leaders have been elected because they’ve had super black majority districts and no one ever runs against them, you know, no one ever challenges them. They don’t necessarily have to provide the expected leadership. I think that we need to demand the best of our leadership because we are, you know, structurally at a disadvantage in this society and we can ill afford to have leaders who don’t have our backs, quite frankly.
BOND: Well, we’re glad to have Congresswoman Gwen Moore here because we know she has our backs. Thank you for being with us.
MOORE: Thank you, sir.
BOND: Thank you.
Transcript from http://blackleadership.virginia.edu/transcript/moore-gwen.