Julian Bond interviews U.S. Representative Diane Watson 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 Watson, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
WATSON: It is so good to be here with you, Julian.
BOND: It's our pleasure to have you. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision. What did it mean to you when you heard about it?
WATSON: As you know, I had a stint on the Los Angeles Board of Education, and Brown was a standard for us. It meant that all children had an opportunity to an equal education. I was on the Board in 1976 when the California Supreme Court mandated that we integrate our school district. At that time, my district was 710 square miles with about 750,000 students in it. Well, as you know, black students were in one area, Hispanic students were in another area, and we didn't have that integration that we thought could guarantee all of our students a quality education, so Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas laid the groundwork for us to enforce an integrated school district. If you know anything about California, we are the first state in the Union that is a majority of minorities, so we ran out of the majority to integrate with.
BOND: But when you first heard about it, 1954, what did you think it was going to mean?
WATSON: Well, I tell you what I saw in it. Being that I grew up in Los Angeles, in an integrated setting, I thought this would be the first time for young black children to integrate, and I thought it was a wonderful thing. We were already integrated.
BOND: Yes, you were at Foshay Junior High School and Dorsey High School. These were integrated schools.
WATSON: Exactly. 36th Street School, which we got named after our fifth grade teacher -- our sixth grade teacher, Birdie Lee Bright, who's still alive, and we were looking at it from a distance and saying, "Oh, the children in the South can have the same opportunity that I would have." Because when I went to Dorsey High School, I was one of five blacks going into the school and we didn't have too many at the time. Of course, it's all Hispanic, a few blacks there now, and our demographics change rapidly, but when it [Brown] first passed, it signaled that we would be able to integrate throughout the South, and that was a tremendous victory.
BOND: Well, your mention of the change, the demographic change at Dorsey, is a natural lead-in to the next question. It obviously meant one thing to you in '54 when you heard about it. Looking back at from today, what does it mean now?
WATSON: Well, at least we have the legal ground on which to stand because it took us into the L.A. Unified School District being required to integrate. But as I said, we ran out of people to integrate with. But it also leads to affirmative action. And I felt that the door of opportunity would open only to be slammed again — as I saw years later — in our faces, and I'll tell you what I mean by that.
We have a very distinguished and prominent university system called the University of California. We get something like sixty to ninety thousand applications each new school year, and we have a lot of students that are eligible to go into the University — no seats. And so with affirmative action, which is not a quota system, but it allows opportunities for young people who are qualified to have a seat in our University. You know, we pay for it with our taxes. And I feel that the 1954 decision would lead to some guarantees. It would give us the tools to be able to integrate our universities as well as our colleges.
BOND: Now, what has it [Brown] meant to you, both personally and professionally? You mentioned your time on the School Board. What does it mean to Diane Watson?
WATSON: Let me say this. As you know in the South, and I was born in Los Angeles, but we knew the only way out of that kind of slave mentality was to educate ourselves, because they wouldn't allow us to be taught to read and so on. And I knew that if we sat in the same classroom with other children, we would then be able to enjoy the opportunities that they had. It meant that to me all the way through school.
When I went to Dorsey High School, I knew I could get an excellent education because there were other young white people there who were in a new school with some of the best educators in the system. And I used to hear the white girls saying, "I'm going to UCLA." I didn't even know what it stood for and I said, "I'm going UCLA." And when I went to UCLA, it was like obtaining a dream, and I made contacts that are lasting 'til today. With that on my resume, I know that my opportunity is even greater even today and I've had a lot of blessings, I'll put it like that, because of that '54 decision, which led to other things. And I didn't get in under affirmative action, it wasn't in place at the time. But now I know that other people like myself will have that opportunity. Well, we slammed the door on them in California, if you remember —
BOND: Proposition 209.
WATSON: Proposition 209. And they said, "You know, we need to take race out of it." But when you have seventy thousand 4.0s asking and seeking admission, you have to find some way to be sure that your new classes coming in have the ethnic balance that represents a state like California and really represents the United States. We certainly — we don't use melting pot any more. We talk about a salad. So tomatoes retain their integrity, lettuce retains its integrity, etc. Well, you don't have to be just like me but you enrich me when I learn your culture. I took Japanese and I found so many beautiful things with their language and their customs that I would never know had I not been around Japanese. I taught school in Okinawa. And when I went to France, I learned a little French and I was able to broaden out my experiences because I could get into their culture and their language. And so we need to offer that opportunity, particularly in a globalized world, to all of our children, and we need to do it early on. So, that decision in '54 set the stage for things to come.
BOND: Looking back over your life from the early years forward, who are the people who've been most significant in helping you develop yourself, your talents, your skills? Who made the most — who did the most?
WATSON: I had a teacher in the sixth grade, Birdie Lee Bright, who is still alive, in her nineties, and Miss Bright had two sisters and knew all of our relatives. And that was one thing about then, teachers went to your homes. They lived in your community and they knew who you were and if you did not behave, they talked to your relatives. Well, I had this great-aunt, Pauline Slater, who was the first African American teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her good friend was the first black — and it was Bessie Burke and — was the first black principal in the L.A. Unified School System. And so my aunt, who never married, you know, was a spinster schoolteacher — she fit the profile of what a teacher should've been during those days — she talked with my mother. She talked with all of these nieces and nephews she had and she made a tremendous impression on it and so did Miss Bright. We were with her a few months ago and I said, "You know, everything I did in your sixth grade was to please you." Because she would walk through that door and she'd wait five minutes when we came in from recess and she'd come in and she'd look around and she'd say, "That's what I like," so I always wanted to see her pound her fist into her hand and say, "That's what I like." Now, did she influence me? She had an A, B, C, D, and F row and, you know, we all struggled to stay in the A and B. My seatmate —
BOND: You mean, if you had the A and then you got a worse grade, you'd have to move back?
WATSON: You'd have to move back to the B.
WATSON: And so it gave you something to reach for, and it was done weekly. My seatmate, Barbara Floyd, she was always writing. I can see her now, on the steno pad, and so she had beautiful penmanship, so I worked on beautiful penmanship. We'd have a spelling test and I would study, and, you know, it was little unique kinds of things she would do that I did when I started to teach. And she would call us up. She said, "You know, grooming is all part of this," and so she'd go around that room and she'd select about six people to go up into the front.
I was always in that line because I would go home, I would wash my shoelaces out every day.
WATSON: I would clean my fingernails, be sure my hair was in place, ironed my own dresses so I could stand up there. She identified in each one of her students what she thought was a skill or a talent and then she would enhance it. I was a good speller, so I got to take the spelling tests home and correct them for her.
WATSON: That's big time, you know.
BOND: Oh, sure.
WATSON: And so — and I knew that she would hold you responsible for your behavior, so when she came in that room I was sitting in my seat, ready to learn and these were the things I tried to invoke in my students when I taught. I set my class up just like her class and I stopped really reviewing the students' dress and grooming, but we talked about it.
But what I did do, I set up a court system in my classroom, and — because she had model kinds of projects for us and if you could spell, you went over here and did this. If you were good in science, if you were good in numbers. And I remember Bernard Williams. I hope he gets a chance to see this, because he's changed his name since then, but she'd [Ms. Bright] go around the room and throw out the multiple tables and she'd say, "Two plus two is four, add five and subtract three — " And so that's the way she'd catch you and you never knew when she was going to do this. So those things stick with children and I learned that when I taught school, that you can't humiliate children. It doesn't work. You cannot insult them and assault them. It does not work. You have to have them go along with you to understand what you're doing.
And let me just give you this little parallel. When I started teaching, the last teaching position was up in Hollywood at Selma Avenue. And on the first day of school, kids would come in and sit down. I had sixth grade and I'd give them each a ball of bubblegum, "Chew it." "Oh, Miss Watson, we can't chew." "No, chew it, you have my permission, chew it." And then I'd take them out on the ground. I'd say, "Now, spit it out." "Oh, no, we can't spit it out." I said, "Spit it out. Now, walk in it." "Oh, no, it will stick to — " I said, "What's going to be our first rule? Boys and girls, you can't chew gum in the classroom. Now, tell me why." And I'd get them. "Now, suppose somebody violates our rule. What're we going to do?" "Well, we really need to talk about it," so we went back to the room. I said, "Okay, Johnny over here violated the rule. Against doing what? Chewing gum. Okay. We're going to sit him down in the hot seat. We're going to put him on trial. Can someone defend him?" "I'll defend him." "Can someone accuse him because you saw him chew the gum, you saw him spit it out, and you stepped in it?" "Yeah." "Okay, can I get somebody back there that'll listen to both sides?"
And so we set up a courtroom. We had a judge, we had a jury and we made our own rules for the classroom, and they understood after a while. I said, "Who likes to go in your desk and you get your hand stuck in somebody's chewed chewing gum?" "Oh, oh, oh." I said, "Then we don't put gum underneath [the desk]. So, now, if people break our laws, what we do?" "We've got to take them to trial, Miss Watson." So, we'd come in and, "We've got to go to trial." "Okay, pick your jury. Who's going to be the defense? Who's going to be the prosecutor? Who's going to be the judge?"
BOND: Now, when you were in school yourself, what about extracurricular activities? Student Council? Girl Scouts? Those kinds of things?
WATSON: I was in the Latin Club, I was in the Girl Scouts. I played soccer — field soccer — tennis. The AYD, American Youth for Democracy. We found it was a front for young communists. We were in the DAPs, Deputy Auxiliary Police. My father was a police officer and got us in, and we joined many community organizations.
BOND: I still remember "Mica, mica, parva stella, miror quaenam sis tam bella." You know what that is? That's Latin. You're supposed to know that.
WATSON: Yeah, well, veni, vidi, vici, I came, I saw, I conquered.
BOND: No, no, no. This is "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." That's all the Latin I remember from my high school days. What about mentors? What about people outside of your classroom teacher, other people —
WATSON: And my aunt.
BOND: And your aunt. Early on and in high school and later, other people who helped guide you on your way?
WATSON: Yes. I always had a very strong family, as I said. My great-aunt was a teacher.
BOND: And your father a policeman.
WATSON: A police officer and his mother was in a convent. And I tell you that because she raised us like we were in a convent and so did he. And so, they taught you the basics of behavior, you know. Every time I get in the bathtub and wash behind my ears, I can hear them. I can hear my grandmother say, "Children are seen and not heard." I could hear my father say, "You don't talk with your mouth full of food," and these things come back to me quite often, so I can say my strong family, my circle of friends and my great-aunt's circle of friends are still — those who are still alive — are still like mentors to me today. So I had a very strong, strong family and we still are — most of my mother's, or all of them are gone except my mother who's ninety-six.
BOND: Oh, good for you. Good for you.
Now, I know that Julian Dixon, your predecessor in the congressional seat, was a model for you. What influence did he have?
WATSON: Julian and I went to high school together.
BOND: Oh really?
WATSON: He was a year behind me and I went on to college and university and went on the School Board. Julian was elected, and he ran against David Cunningham and Nate [Nathaniel] Holden — I think you might know the two of them —
BOND: Sure, I know both of them.
WATSON: — and Julian won and came here. That was about 1978 and came to — I'm sorry, not here, came to Sacramento, and when Julian left, going to Washington, D.C., I took his staff. His district was always on the inside of my Senate district, so we worked together on many, many issues. I chaired the Health and Human Services Committee for seventeen years, so we did a lot of the health legislation and we coordinated it with his staff. And we talked, off and on, about issues that impacted on our district. Julian having the same, pretty much the same educational background as I did, knew very quickly where to go if he needed something done in the Senate — the California Senate — after he left and came on here to Congress.
BOND: And so, it was natural do you think for you to succeed him?
WATSON: You know, I can't tell you. I didn't think about it, but I can say this. I didn't expect him not to be there. I had gone on to my appointment as an Ambassador in Micronesia when I got the call. I remember it was 4:30 a.m. our time, Micronesian time, to tell me of his death and I was very saddened and heartbroken over the fact. And I went back to sleep and the phone rung and never stopped ringing. And they said, "We're going to get you appointed." And I said, "Well, wouldn't the government call a special election?" which they did, and the rest is history.
I thought I would end my career in public life as an ambassador. That was always my dream, my goal. I never thought about running again after that position. I was hoping that Gore would've won. I thought I could get another appointment from him. I was appointed by Bill Clinton, and — but everyone knows what happened in 2000 and, of course, when my president went out of office, that was the end of that. And then Julian dies so everything kind of dovetailed in, and before I knew it, I was sitting here in Congress.
BOND: Now, somebody else who had served as a kind of a mentor is the late and warmly remembered Kenny [Kenneth] Hahn, the Supervisor.
WATSON: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
BOND: What was your relationship?
WATSON: Kenny was a massive influence, particularly in south central Los Angeles. In fact, in the whole county. And Kenny had the respect of everyone on [the] left, on the right side, and so on. He was the person who got things done and he took advantage in the aftermath of the Watts riots and said, "We have got to start examining the needs of the people who live in this disadvantaged area of Los Angles. Should we not, we're going to be prime for riots in the future." And he was never so truthful when he said that. If you remember how the Watts riots started, Johnnie Cochran made his name on defending — well, representing — the wife of the young man. It was Deadwyler [Leonard Deadwyler, who was pulled over and shot by Los Angeles police officers] who was killed taking his wife on the freeway, speeding on the freeway, because she was getting ready to deliver a baby. Made the wrong move, was killed, and that started the explosion. Kenny understood that something needed to be done to change the level and the quality of life, and he said, "First thing we need to do is put a hospital, county hospital, out here that's accessible." I was born at L.A. County, which is up in northeast Los Angeles. We had no county hospital in the Watts area, so he was the driving force behind that and we're still fighting over that hospital today.
BOND: Oh yes, I know you are. I know you are.
WATSON: The other thing that was very, very impressive, he brought to Los Angeles a man by the name of Carter, and we didn't know who he was. His first name happened to be Jimmy. And I remember it rained for two weeks straight and all of a sudden the rain stopped about an hour before we were to have this big community meeting and they got the chairs all dried and he said — he looked up. I'll never forget this. He said, "It never rains on Kenny Hahn's parade." He said, "I want to introduce you to someone and I want you to remember this name. His name is Jimmy Carter." And that did it. All Kenny had to do is say, "Here's Jimmy Carter." When the presidential election came up, everybody out there — "I'm voting for Jimmy Carter, because Kenny Hahn said so."
BOND: When I think about Kenny Hahn, I think about a white politician who's able to engender this enormous love and affection from black people. And I wonder whether or not the reputation he established has been a guide for you.
WATSON: Well, let me tell you what he used to do. He would get in his car on a Saturday night and start riding the streets, and if he saw the police stopping a black kid, he would get out and he'd say, "Officer, how're you doing? Hey, young man, how you're doing? Anything I can help you with?" You know, and they just fell in love with him. Nate Holden was one of his field deputies, you know, was out there among the people and I could call Kenny and I'd say, "There's a drain here, you know, a sewer drain and it's all stuffed up." Kenny would have somebody out there. Now, he wasn't to fill potholes and clean drains. That was the City, but you'd always call Kenny because he would get things done. And I'll tell you another thing that he did, too, that endeared him, is that if he were talking to you, he had a photographer and the photographer would take a picture of the two of you together. He'd sign it and send it to you and say no thanks required. And that's what he did. He was always in someone's home after church. He visited every Protestant church there was. Then he would be in someone's home with his feet underneath Mrs. Jones' table having chicken and mashed potatoes on a Sunday afternoon. His presence was always there in the community and people trusted him and loved him.
BOND: And you represent a multi-ethnic population now —
WATSON: I do.
BOND: — and did on the School Board.
WATSON: I do.
BOND: And I wonder to what extent Kenny Hahn's example served you.
WATSON: Well, of course, all of us wanted to be the politician's politician, like Kenny, so you would go to him. You know, if you were planning on running for office. You had to make a stop there. You had to get the nod of Bishop H. H. Brookins. There were kingmakers. Gil [Gilbert] Lindsay doing his state. These are all people you know well. And you always went because with their support came resources and, of course, with Kenny's support in the 2nd District, you had everything you needed. And so you watched how he operated in our community and then you patterned what you did very much like what he did. You have to touch bases with people, and that's what I do. I used to go to factories when I was running for School Board. I'd go to factories when they opened in the morning. I'd go to factories when they closed in the evening. We'd ride buses. People have to know who you are and I learned that from Kenny.
BOND: Now, how did you choose a career in public service? Now, we know you were in education before that, but there're lots of ways to improve education. You don't have to be on the School Board to improve education. What made you think that this was a logical step?
WATSON: I was drafted.
BOND: Oh, really?
WATSON: I set out — I was an educator. I got an advanced degree, a master's in school guidance and counseling. I worked for Child Welfare and Attendance — that's the old hooky cop. And when I — my last teaching assignment up in Hollywood, I noticed that my students had a lot of emotional, psychological, and behavior problems and I couldn't get much help. So I went into this field of counseling and guidance. And I got a degree, and I got one of the new degrees that was mandated and when my area office heard I had this degree, they came and they said, "We want you to come over here and I'd like to have you" — this was the area superintendent — "go out to these schools in the valley." And so I was doing that and I got a call to come out to UCLA and interview for a program, so I went out and it was a program in allied health occupations and professions, and they needed a director. I didn't know anything about health, but I had the resume, you know, so I became the director of that program and I found out that — you know, I had to travel the state as well — and so a group of community people came and said, "We need to get you on the School Board." And I said no.
They waited for two years and they came back and they said, "We have someone we want you to see," and one of those people was David Cunningham. Thanks, Dave. The other one was Portia Craig, who was a real mentor to me, an older woman who knew my mother, but she took me on because her daughter had married and not gone on to school like I did. And she really was the one that nudged me and she sent her friend there and she knew I had a lot of respect for him, and I went down to the Board and interviewed with a Board member and he said, "Listen, I'll give you $50,000 off the bat and da da da — you can be home for dinner every night," and he did not tell the truth on that one, but he said, "And you will find it very rewarding. One condition — you have to change your registration from Democrat to Republican." That fired me up. I said to him, "No way." So I went out of there, scared to death, and went right down and filed to run.
BOND: Right away.
WATSON: I said, "I'm going to do this on my own and do it my way." I did, and I had several tragedies on the way. I lost the first time I ran. My campaign manager was murdered coming out of a fundraiser and I was going to give it all up, but a friend of mine, [Charles] Chappy Chappelle, that night that I learned of his death, pulled me up by the collar and he said, "Look, you've got to do this for Tom." By the way, Tom was on Kenny Hahn's gang task force and I don't know what he knew, what he found out, but it caused, I think — it contributed to his death. And in his name, I went forward. I ran the incumbent into a runoff by just a few thousand votes. He won, I lost, but we kept going for two years, and I ran for an open seat and I went in with over 80 percent of the vote. At that time, we ran district-wide, and I told you it was 810 square miles going to the Valley and to Pasadena and out to the ocean, huge district, but I had an antebellum-type running against me who wore red, white and blue. And she made the mistake of saying she didn't believe in a participatory democracy and so that got her. And so I won, and I was the first elected black on the Board, a woman. Reverend [James E.] Jones had been on before, but there was a woman appointed and when they found out she was black, they ran someone with the same name against her. That was 1939. She ran in '43 and lost. I was the first one that ran and won.
BOND: And did that give you a sort of taste for political life? School boards aren't political in the same sense as assembly seats or congressional seats, but did it give you a taste for this?
WATSON: Every single experience one has when running for office I had in that first run. I mean, days and days and days without sleep. You go somewhere and they don't call your name. You wait around and they don't introduce you. As I said, the murder of my campaign manager almost stopped my career, period. That was hard to get up the next morning. They moved people into my house to protect me. They didn't know if they were after me. They put my staff under protective custody and so on, because he was killed at the fundraiser, I mean, after leaving the fundraiser. So I guess that was the way of the powers that be toughened me up. I had to deal with rejection. I had to deal with people who I thought were my friends abandoning me because they didn't want to get involved in raising the money. I had to deal with someone breaking into my headquarters and stealing everything I had, including the typewriters I had borrowed, including the cans of nuts that I had for the official opening. I went through every — my mail would come opened, "accidentally." I experienced the worst, so I could perform the best later on. So I was tried. You know, I was like a piece of iron you put into the fire. When it gets red hot, you pull it out.
BOND: You were tempered.
WATSON: I was tempered.
BOND: What made you go on? Most people would've said, "Well, I've had enough of this."
WATSON: Well, I almost said that, but had it not been for my friends, my sister, her best friends, that would bring their children's milk money to keep my office open. We gave a fundraiser every Friday night — $1.00 entry, $1.00 per drink, and my sister carried in the back of her car a galvanized tub, a roll of tickets and everything and the booze, and we'd take them from house to house to house. We'd raise enough money to keep the office open another week and so on. Oh, I could go on and tell you, regale you with the experiences we had in the two years that I ran for office. Really, it was four years, but I did win and because I won in 1975, June of '75, in '76 the Supreme Court of California ordered integration. And I was sitting there with Kathy Brown, Kathleen Brown Rice then, who was Jerry Brown's sister. We ran together as a team and we both were sworn — in fact, Julian swore me in.
BOND: Oh, really?
WATSON: Yes. And her father I think swore her in.
BOND: Governor Brown, the first Governor Brown.
WATSON: Yes, the first Governor Brown, and when we were sitting there at an orientation session and the L.A. Times reporter came up and said, flash, the Supreme Court has ordered the integration of schools and they got our picture. It appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times. For some reason, they must've turned the page like that because every ethnic feature I had was spread out across and she was very pert-looking. My mother called me at six o'clock in the morning, she says, "Whatever they say, I still love you." So I went and got my paper. I said, "Oh, my goodness." And they would take pictures of me in dark colors in front of a dark background.
WATSON: Bobbi Fiedler — I'm fast-forwarding — but it was an experience going through that period of time speaking on behalf of the children that were locked into inferior schools and they were locked into one-race schools and I had to speak on their behalf. That's a whole 'nother story and you don't have time, but you grow a lot and you learn how to work with people and if you stick to your principles and your ethics and your morals and what is right in a democratic society and if you stand for children and the enlightenment of children and their progress, then you can't lose, but it's a hard road to get to your goal.
I can tell you another experience. On the first day of our integration program which might have been 1977, we had a student killed out at one of our high schools and the superintendent called us in an executive session early in the morning and he told us what had happened and when I thought about it, I went to Bobbi Fiedler who was Miss Bus Stop and I said, "Bobbi, now you talk about how violent our communities are and you don't want your children out here and you don't want white children at those schools. Would you go with me out to the high school to support what the principal is trying to do?" And she said yes. I said, "I'll drive you out and I'll drive you back. We'll spend an hour out there," so I had five hours with her and on the way out there we started to talk.
I said, "Bobbi, you do such a disservice to our black children when you condemn them all by saying that our communities, our homes, are all violent and saying that our schools are the lowest rated." I said, "you have nothing good to say about the situation in which they live and go to school and how do we encourage and how can you influence people to look at us without false perceptions but with reality?" And she said, "Diane, do you know that I was Roberta Horowitz from [SanMo] High School Democrats and I married Mr. Fiedler who was a pharmacist and he took me out of that environment and took me to the Valley." She was Jewish. And she said, "I don't want to go back." So I said, "I understand." She said, "When a mother comes to you and says I would've committed suicide had it not been for you," she said, "I had to represent these people." I said, "I have to represent these people and let's agree to disagree but not do it disagreeably." We're good friends right now.
WATSON: Good friends.
BOND: I remember that name.
WATSON: You remember and she was here in Congress. We're good friends, so in terms of being a leader, it happens. Rosa Parks didn't set out to be a leader. She was taking an action and, you know, she said, "I would no longer be insulted. I would no longer be treated this way. I'm going to take a stand and I took a stand by sitting down so you could stand up." Well, I took a stand by letting her know who we are and what our desires and dreams were and she let me know what hers were, so-- and then you find that people are following you because you're giving them something they need and that's knowledge and information and you know what I used to do? I used to call certain community leaders. I said, "can you call a meeting in the basement of the church so I can tell what they're getting ready to do to you?" And so we'd meet at the church and I'd lower my voice and say, "get ready to hear what they're getting ready to do you." "What?" And I'd go on, you know, and that's the way I'd get them there and we would plan out our strategy and we'd have marches to the School Board and asking for integration and, of course, by busing because we had such expansive land.
BOND: But in some ways you've been preparing for this all your life.
WATSON: I have.
BOND: You had to take care of your siblings when you were young. You grew up in what we would now call a single-family home. What influence does that have on the life that you lead now?
WATSON: Well, I'll you what. My dad always stayed in the picture. He was L.A.P.D. and he'd come by all the time. He would take my sister and I in the black and white to Mass. We hated it, but we had to go.
BOND: You hated being in the car, coming in the police car?
WATSON: Yes, we didn't want anyone to see us, you know.
BOND: But you could sit in the front seat?
WATSON: No. We sat behind the screen in the back seat and we just — but he would take us and, you know, the first time he did that we went in this door and came out the side door. He was looking in his rear view and spun that car around. Oh, we were so embarrassed, and took us back in that church. My grandmother was very strict on us, but in a loving way and so they got us ready to accept responsibility. I was seven when my mother and father divorced, but the good in it was that my mother held my sister and I responsible for the home while she worked at night in the post office.
We would come home from school. She'd be going out the door to work. And my grandmother was there, but Barbara and I — my sister, eighteen months older — and I had the responsibility of the household. My mother would give us money to go to the market and buy food for the meal. I could bake cakes. I could roast a turkey. I could fry pork chops. I could do it all. We cleaned the house. We washed the dishes. My mother's definition of washing the dishes was you scrubbed the floor. You wiped the woodwork. You cleaned the stove. You wash and dry the dishes and you put them away. And the only time we didn't do that and she got home at 1:30 in the morning — we were up out of bed to clean that kitchen.
I am very proud of having the skills to do whatever I have to do. If you tell me, "Scrub the floor," I can scrub that floor better than the housekeeper. If you tell me to wash the windows, newspaper and vinegar, right? Wash those windows. And, you know, I'm glad because I can be independent and take care of my own needs and I'm not afraid to go back. You know, people lose their fortunes and they jump out of windows. I lose my fortune and I find out where I can go and make it again, you know. That's what our parents put into us. But, you know, we had a very happy childhood, because my mother was an actress at one time.
BOND: Oh really?
WATSON: And she was a people person and she took us traveling. My dad should've been in a monastery. He was a police officer and so that combination, when he left the home, we got so many opportunities and we had strong women around us and they had families, and so we had the best of what you could have in a broken home.
BOND: Now, at some point in your life you've got to say, if not consciously at least subconsciously to yourself, "I'm a leader." You don't run for the School Board without thinking that you can lead the school system toward improving itself. When does that point come for you? Do you remember it?
WATSON: I didn't so much think of myself as a leader. I thought of myself as taking advantage of the opportunity that was out there. I've always been a problem solver, and I thought when I first contemplated running for the School Board, I said, you know, we take our orders from our principal, from the area superintendent, from the superintendent. Why not go where you can make the law and you could look at it in terms of its impact on children? So that's how I figured it out. I didn't so much start off to say, "I'm going to lead people," but I got in that position.
BOND: But at the same time you knew from your professional experience, you knew about the education system.
WATSON: Yes. Exactly.
BOND: You knew what happening in Los Angeles Public Schools, but it's a step from that to thinking you can change it.
WATSON: Well, I thought about how can we solve this problem and how could we do what was best for children? How do children learn? And so I could present -- I was on all the committees. In fact, I would chair them, and I made our Board meet out at schools so they could go into the communities. You know, we had the concept of neighborhood schools. Well, what's a neighborhood like? Why don't you visit that neighborhood and hold your meeting and let those parents come in? So these are the things, you see, problem-solving, working with the community, working with the parents and all. I could lead that way. I could lead them to the kinds of interactions they needed to have. In that way, I was a leader.
BOND: It seems to me that education has always been important to your agenda.
BOND: Why is that? I mean I think I know why, but why is that? Why is education so important?
WATSON: Well, I truly believe that the more knowledge you have, the more successful and effective you can be in life. When you close yourself off from new information, new technologies, new methods and so on, you're stuck in place. And so for me, coming from a family -- my grandmother was educated. My mother's mother, by the way, was the first nurse graduating from Provident Hospital in Chicago to operate with Dr. [Daniel Hale] Williams on the first open heart surgery and is written up in the medical textbooks. They educated her because her mother was the result of the slave master and the slave, her grandmother. They escaped to Chicago where my grandmother was born and so they always wanted to go back to Africa but they knew they had to educate her because she was your color, but the other ones were much lighter, so they educated her -- you know, they went by color, and you're very fair yourself. She was not my color. She was more your color, but she wasn't their color either.
WATSON: So she got the benefit of the education and went to Provident, and my sister who's now deceased, went into nursing because of our grandmother, so it was there. We had independent women.
My grandmother decided she was going to bring her children to California. Took them seven years. Some of her children were born in Oklahoma and the others were born in Los Angeles. And two weeks after they were here, her husband dropped dead in the street. She had to go work at the county hospital. My mother took charge of the household like we, my sister and I, took charge when my mother went to work.
BOND: So education has always been a door-opener.
WATSON: It's been a door-opener. It's been a way to broaden your expanse. It helps you adjust to other people, other cultures. Taking languages -- and I don't know why that people believe that English only is the only way to go and we live in a state in California where in our school district a hundred and twenty-nine languages are spoken. And in taking languages along the way, it has really enhanced my knowledge of other peoples. I'm very comfortable around people who don't look like me only because I had that experience from the time I grew up. We were the blockbusters when we moved on Cimarron, which was the Westside.
BOND: Now, some people have called you a black feminist. Is that a comfortable -- ?
WATSON: Absolutely a black feminist. I was in that first group out in Los Angeles that talked about feminism and women having experiences and women competing for jobs that men usually had. We were not given to burning and getting rid of our bras, but we certainly adopted the feminist philosophy that women ought to have the same opportunity as men and there were groups that we joined early on.
BOND: But I can remember in this period people saying, "Listen, black women, black men have been held down so long that you need to stand aside and let them rise up." Did you ever run into that?
WATSON: I did.
BOND: And what was your reaction?
WATSON: In fact, when I ran for the Senate, there was a gentleman who had four children and he said, "Why don't you move out of the way and give me this opportunity?" I said, "I can do the work as well you can." And I really felt that. I didn't -- by the way, let me go back and say this. When the notion was brought to me that I should run for the Senate in California, I resisted that, but my campaign manager, who had been with me through my winning campaign for Board, brought in all the information why he felt I could win. I was media hot, as they say, because I was representing this whole group of African American children who were going to get on buses and integrate white schools in the Valley. And so, the media was always there, focusing right on me. And I had a hard time with them, but I was in the press. So he said, "You know, Julian's going to go on, and -- " I didn't run for his seat, but he said, "There's a place in the Senate for you."
BOND: He was being term limited out, right?
WATSON: Not at that time. No. But, he had just won the seat in Congress and there was a seat that opened up because Nate Holden, you see, quit the Senate to run for Congress. He was in the race with Julian, so that vacated that seat and it was my area where I lived. And I said, "Listen, it's breaking new ground for me. I'm an educator," and I said, "but I'll give you a fair chance at it," and we used to go around to different friends' home for brunch on Sunday, and so we met. And when I looked around the room, here were relatives and my loyal supporters saying, "We want you to run." I said, "I'm not going to say no, but I want you go out and talk to the educators. I want you to talk to labor, I want you to talk to -- " and so on, "and we'll meet at my home next Sunday."
Well, they did. They came an hour and two early and everybody came looking stern. They said, "We went to this and they'll support you, went to that," and so on and so forth. Next thing I knew, I was in the race. There were six other people. One was a man who asked me to step out of the way so he could have it, and I said no and the rest is history, but we were with a group of young Westside women as well as women from south central, and we were the progressives at the time and we would talk about opportunities for women. And that's how the feminist movement got started. We were on the ground floor and we worked hard, and people went in all different directions, and I went into the Senate.
BOND: Do you think there's been a conflict between the emphasis on women, and properly so, and the current emphasis on young girls? You know, we've got this push some places for all-female high schools, and some cities have all-female high schools, while black men, young men, seem to be falling by the wayside. Is it possible to be a strong feminist and still have concern for and lift up these young black men who just seem to be -- I don't want to exaggerate and say on the edge of distinction, but their circumstances just seem so dire.
WATSON: Those experiences are not mutually exclusive. We went through a period of time that we were trying to promote women and young black girls. In some ways, we avoided looking and focusing on our young men and -- you know, two people were free in the South. It was the white man and the black woman because she came out of the field to the yard to the house. So she knew all the secrets. She took care of the children, she took care of the house and so on. And so women have always -- black women -- have really been the glue that has kept the black family together. And so in being able to make progress through education and into professions, we then could bring our young people along with us. But I think society has neglected the black male. And of course, the black male has been victimized ever since we appeared in this country and I do think that we need to focus more on our young black men than we have in the past, so I don't have to prove anything and as a feminist anymore, but what we have to do is really start focusing and I've taken on that role. We've been looking at the gang structure. In fact, this goes all the way back to the mid '80s. When you find you have more black men in prison in California than you have in the university, that's a very troubling thought. And so I will agree we really need to put more focus and have more programs on bringing our young black men along and we need to be sure there's financial assistance. We need to be sure they have an opportunity to go to post-secondary educational programs. We need to be sure not all of them are forced into vocational education rather than taking on the scholarship and the rigors of getting a degree and becoming a professional and being able to be financially independent. We need to put more focus on our African American males today. I will agree with you.
BOND: Let me shift gears a couple of times and talk just for a moment about Micronesia.
BOND: What did you learn, not just so much about the Micronesian people themselves but about a being in a different place? What did you learn?
WATSON: Let me just say this. To be appointed as a United States ambassador and representing our country abroad was one of the superior goals of my life and one of the greatest honors I'll ever, ever have. And I thank President Bill Clinton for appointing me. Now, what did I learn? I learned that there are cultures around this globe that have not had that much contact with, say, western society. And I learned that the people have a native ability that we don't have. And I have learned that in many ways they have more of a spiritual connection and it gives you a great appreciation for these cultures and what they can offer to enrich capitalist America.
I learned that we could bring them along if we gave them the kind of education, so we have every education program out there in those islands that we have here because we're under a compact, but I learned so much from the people. I learned about the love of family. I learned that when a woman is being considered as being the wife of a son, she has to go and live at the mother's home to learn how to treat her to-be-husband. I learned a lot about their customs. I appreciated their ability to communicate non-verbally with each other. I learned that they saw in nature their every need being met so they drank, they washed, and so on, in the same water and, of course, we had a cholera epidemic and we had to teach them about purifying the water before they drank it, but I learned a lot about nature and appreciation for nature that we don't necessarily get in our urban centers where we grow up. So, it was much of a learning experience for me.
Oh, I could do the administrative work. I loved it, and if you wanted a position in public life, there's no higher position than going as a United States ambassador and that was the time that we were loved and appreciated. Our position in the world today has sunk to the bottom. We're becoming one of the most hated nations on the globe, and I can tell you that because we travel the globe. By the way, I was part of that group that went to Caracas, Venezuela, three weeks ago and we could not deplane.
BOND: Yes, because of the protests.
WATSON: But [Hugo] Chavez, you know, is not going to be jerked around, and so I learned that the principles that we stood for -- the moral and ethics that we have always stood for, the humanity -- has been sullied with the invasion of a sovereign nation. And the fact that the truth was not forthcoming, and people recognized it. And I saw 9/11 turn people into fear -- well, not fear-mongers -- but our administration uses the politics of fear and connected a situation that had no connection with the invasion, and so people have lost their trust in the United States. We were always there as allies to help, but this time we invaded a sovereign nation under false pretenses, so we've lost a lot of that and I am saddened greatly because I was proud to represent what the United States stood for. The island nation that I was assigned to is composed of 607 islands, but only four of them are in the Federation and it's called the Federation of Micronesia. And so I would go to the four islands all the time and then to some of the outer island on occasion and spread the word of democracy, which they adopted fully, but I could not explain to them the need for the Electoral College after the 2000 decision.
BOND: No, it's hard to explain to rational people.
WATSON: Believe me, believe me. And I had been asked questions. One native woman on one of the islands said to me, "Ambassador, do the students at the College select the president?" And I had to thank about that. I said, "Well, yes, the Electoral College does. Now, let me try to explain it," and it wasn't making sense to me why in the year 2000, we would go along with a system that was put into works a hundred years before.
BOND: Well, let me move on. Think about yourself -- what do you think about the difference between vision, philosophy, and style?
WATSON: You have to bring them together.
WATSON: If you have a vision of where you want to go, what you want to be, and what you want to do, then you have to develop a plan to do that based on your philosophy, what you believe in, your morals, and I'm a people person and I think you help as many people as you can. And how do you put that plan of action, how do you meet that goal? And so you have to know what you stand for and as a teacher -- I majored in college in education with a minor in social work, so I'm just a social worker at heart, and so you combine it all.
If you have a basic belief, it's your philosophy and then it gives you your style. And I try to work with people and bring them to the light. You know, I always tell young people when I'm speaking to them, "You've got to read with your third eye." That means you have to be analytical. You can't believe everything that's written down. I could write down that I own the Bay Bridge. Does that make it truth? Be the seeker of truth. What is the real truth behind that statement? And so, you have to bring the three and they have to mesh together.
BOND: Now, the vision that's guided your work and your life -- has this changed over time? Is somehow different now than it would've been, say, twenty years ago or twenty years before that?
WATSON: Reaching for the stars has always been my vision -- ad astra [to the stars], Latin. And I think it's been more refined. I have more focus. I'm working on the federal level now and my focus is what the federal government ought to be doing to serve the states and what does the state do to serve its people. We have states' rights, and so my vision has broadened out. At the same time, it's focused in on areas where I can be helpful. It's very difficult when the House, the Senate, and the administration are under one party. We become the underdogs. We become the minority and the power body rests in the hands of the Republicans, so it's frustrating at times to see bills passing out that you know don't serve the best interest of all the people. It's very frustrating, but we work where we can.
Well, just a few minutes ago Sheila Jackson Lee and myself were getting signatures for the Sojourner Truth statue that finally will be erected in Statuary Hall next to where the suffragettes are -- "Ain't I A Woman," and "We've been fighting for you." That was a dream of C. Delores Tucker, who just passed, is to get that statue in there and so we're following through. This is her legacy and it's ours, too. And I went around and got maybe two pages of signatures, maybe sixty signatures in ten minutes, because when I said, "Sojourner Truth who sojourned" -- her name was Isabelle and God gave her a vision that she should travel and spread the word and her famous speech, "Ain't I A Woman?" And so I took -- "Where do we sign?" "Right here." Got those signatures. So, you know, you have a dream, you have a goal.
You've got to work your plan. You can't just dream it. You gotta get up out of bed and do something. And I teach my nieces -- I don't have any children -- I teach my nieces and nephews, "You got a problem? Well, let's not spend our time in the problem. What's your solution? What are we going to do? Where do we go next? As soon as that problems comes, you gotta start thinking what you're going to do about it." And I push them that way, so -- and I make myself. I said, "Okay, how're we going to go about addressing that?" So you have to have a plan. You have to work your plan. It shouldn't be just a dream.
WATSON: You've got to have action. And so that's what I've combined on my -- I'm a worker.
BOND: Let me ask you about how leaders get made, because people talk about it in three separate ways. One, great people cause great events to happen. Another one, movements make leaders. And the third, unpredictable events create leaders appropriate for the times. Does any of those fit you?
WATSON: Well, I can say this. Let me quote Bishop H. H. Brookins. He used to say that if you call yourself a leader and no one is following you, you're just a man out taking a walk. So I would describe myself as meeting the needs of the moment. And if you can come up with an action plan, then people will follow you. If you stand back and just complain about the fire in that building and you don't call the fire department who can come and put it out, then you're as much as a victim as the people inside there, so if you call the fire department and they come out, you can say you led them to the fire, so there's a fire out there. We try to put out the fire and that's the kind of leader that --
BOND: That's a natural segue to the next question. Are you a leader because you can persuade people to follow your vision or because you can articulate the agenda of a movement?
WATSON: I think that I'm more the latter, and you know -- of course, I'm an elected official and so on and you're a leader just by the --
BOND: By the nature of the position.
WATSON: By the nature of the job that you are responsible for. I like to give people the facts and I like to walk them through the steps of where we can move to change that set of circumstances to our benefit. That's the kind of leader I am.
BOND: Now, do you have a general philosophy that guides your life?
BOND: Now, how has this philosophy sustained you in difficult moments, because everybody's had difficult moments. And your description of the murder of your campaign director -- I mean, just had to be staggering.
WATSON: It was. It was life-changing. But I have always positioned myself -- A, where I could have the opportunity. B, something happens, be a woman, what're you going to do about it? You know? You can't change what happened. It has happened, but you can change how you react to it and you have to become strong-minded. I mean, you can't let one little swat knock you down. And that's what I have done over the years. I've just had to pick myself up sometimes by myself and move forward, and you don't grovel in your misery. You've got to move forward, you know, get up out of that bed if you don't feel well. Think positively. Move ahead.
You've got to be strong-minded and that comes from my grandmother. You know, we'd fall and she'd say, "You fall down hard?" "Yes, ma'am." "Break your behind?" "Yes, ma'am." We used to get so angry. She didn't give you sympathy. She made you get up and keep moving, so I tell myself, "Okay, you come in here with a problem? Let's look at how we can solve it." And that's what I've done to myself, too. I've had some very traumatic experiences in life and I just had to straighten my back, put my head up and deal with them.
BOND: You also seem to me to be very straightforward about who you are, and I was reading something you said to the L.A. Times in March of '97. You said, "I'm a liberal, big-spending, Democratic, female African American. Take me or leave me. That's who I am." I mean, that's not a description everyone politician would give of themselves, even if it was true.
WATSON: If I had all the money in the world, I'd spend it on everybody in the world. That's just who I am.
WATSON: And I think people's needs ought to be met and if they can't meet them personally, then government has to fill in. I'm the safety net person.
BOND: Nice segue to the next question. How does race consciousness affect your work? Are you a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or both? And is there a distinction between them?
WATSON: I -- yes, there is. But I advance issues, period, and then I try to protect and speak for the underdog, be they black, brown, Asian or whatever. And I see very clearly because I'm an African American, and by the way, the reason why we have the designation on the Census form of African American is because when I chaired the Caucus in California and I chaired it for eight years, I called in the people from the Census Bureau and I said, "Look," I said, "We have a problem because we are black people in America. I was born as colored. I grew up as Negro and I chose to be called an African American, because if you're Chinese, everyone knows that you have your gene pool in China. If you're Japanese, everyone knows that your gene pool is in Japan. If you're Mexican, in Mexico. But if you're black, dah." So I said, "Why can't we identify with our gene pool? We originated off the continent of Africa," and that's how it came about. So I've always had a great deal of pride, ethnic pride, and so I can go out there as a black person, as a woman, you know, and work on behalf of other people like me and all the people that I represent. I have no fear in doing that and I come from a very strong matriarchal background because our women had to be. You know, the men weren't around and you had to go out, you had to work, and we're workers. Nobody in my family was on welfare. My mother worked at the post office, by the way, during the war.
BOND: At night?
WATSON: At night. She got time and a half. She'd work holidays and we lived well. My mother, she bought property and we enhanced that property and all, but we worked hard and I still work hard and I'd rather work than lounge around. That's just who I am.
BOND: Let me ask you a question about what seems to be a contradiction in some of the things you said. On the one hand, you're the beneficiary of a philosophy of tough love. "You got to do it. Pick yourself up, even if it hurt. Get up and walk away." On the other hand, you also want to reach down and give a helping hand to people who are disadvantaged, at the bottom of the economic order. How do you balance these things? Aren't these things in conflict?
WATSON: See, I don't think so. I don't think tough love really describes what my experiences were. I would say that, yes, my father was very strict, my grandmother was very strict, and we grew up in a home. We were devout Catholics and our upbringing was 6:00 a.m. Mass and, you know, just all the other dogma that comes with a religious belief, so I don't think tough love describes what it was. It was a strict upbringing with plenty of love.
I have a compassion for people. I think I started off by saying I am a people person and in my home, in my mother's house, all her sisters and brothers, seven of them, came. My friends would come and stay over night, you know, "Stay as long as you need to." We always had the place where people could come and when your guests came, you gave them your bed and that's the way we were raised. And there was always food for anyone that came in the door. That's the way I was raised. That's the way I believe, and I think you help people who can't help themselves.
In public office, I can be the voice of those people who are voiceless. I can help them when no one else. And I train my staff that way. I said everyone gets served in this office. "But, Senator, they're asking about putting lights on their street and cutting the trees down and so on." And I said, "Then you refer them to the person who can take care of them, but don't ever say we cannot help you. Do something for them." And that's just my belief, so I don't think there's a conflict, and you call it tough love. I call it a strict upbringing but in that upbringing, there was compassion.
BOND: Let me ask you a question about your style. Do you have a different style if you're dealing with an all-black group, a mixed-raced group, or a white group? Are you a different person?
BOND: Behave in a different way?
WATSON: No. And I can tell you what I do do. As I told you, my congressional district is very diversified. I have an Armenian community, a Greek community. I have all of Korea Town. I have Hollywood. I have south central Los Angeles. I have some of the wealthiest areas — Hancock Park, Fremont Place, Larchmont, and the City of Los Angeles. And they're all colors. What I do is I go in there and I relate to them on issues of concern to their neighborhoods.
BOND: A moment ago we were talking about tough love and compassion, and there seem to me occasions when you do apply —
WATSON: But they're not mutually exclusive. I want to make that clear.
BOND: No, they're not mutually exclusive. But you do apply kind of a tough love approach. You talked to AKA in 1997 and you talked about Ebonics and how Ebonics is not an acceptable alternative or a stepping-stone and, of course, there're many people who will tell that it's perfectly fine. It's okay to use over here and then you use something else over here.
WATSON: As an educator, I don't put much credence in allowing people not to use the English language because your communication skills will deter you or they'll take you where you want to go. So we don't need to fool our kids into thinking that they can use Ebonics and be successful in this world. The world is too competitive and communication skills are your key into upward mobility and so I don't fool our kids.
I went out to a high school when I was on the Board and there were kids that came in with bedroom slippers on and their hair up in curlers and I told the principal, I said, "Do not allow young people to think that that's appropriate dress for the outside world, the work world. That's appropriate at home." "Well, these kids are — " I said, "That's no excuse. They have to know appropriate behavior, appropriate language, so they can get the job. And so it's your job to educate them, to enlighten them, to train them and let them know what's appropriate and what's not." You can't holler fire in a crowded theater. It's inappropriate. The First Amendment, you see? So we have to teach our children. We can't keep them in ignorance.
BOND: Now, you were Chairman of the Caucus in the California Assembly?
BOND: Senate. You're a member of the Congressional Black Caucus today.
BOND: When people think about you, some people say, "Oh yes, the black congresswoman from Los Angeles" or "the other black congresswoman from Los Angeles." Is that divisive, these organizations that are single ethnic identity and this designation of you as a black congresswoman? Does that separate us?
WATSON: I've had that experience from the time I was in the Senate. They would — I'd go places with my colleagues and this was Senator [David] Roberti, Senator [Nicholas C.] Petra, Senator [Joseph] Montoya and [Sen.] Diane [Feinstein]. Or they'd say, "Now, which one is the senator here? Well, can't we call you senatoress?" I said, "No, senator is the neutral term, call me senator." And, you know, I had to weave my way through that all of the time and I am called by another member's name all of the time, because a lot of people don't distinguish between black people. You know, I have fought that all of my adult life.
BOND: That's one thing, but what about people who say, "Oh, yes, she's one of the black congresspersons from California" instead of "she's one of the congresspersons from Los Angeles."
BOND: Not male/female — black.
WATSON: I think we endure and when you have an opportunity in a situation to clarify, that's fine, but most often you're not present when they say, "Oh, she's one of the black congresspersons." Well, we have a Black Caucus and it no longer stresses me out because I've dealt with it for so long. You just move ahead. I've always been the only one in my group, wherever I was, and I've had to deal with it. And you know, people found me very curious because I would be the only black person that they ever saw in life. I taught school in Okinawa. We would go to islands that are not even mapped and they'd look at me, you know, and they'd want to touch my skin, my hair and followed me around because they never saw anyone like me. And it was uncomfortable in the beginning, but I got used to it.
BOND: Now — but if we talk about black leadership, does that foster some kind of divisiveness? You're a black leader as opposed to a leader?
WATSON: I'm not just a black leader. Yes, and I think that when people realize what they're saying, they'll change the way they're describing it because I represent a third, a third, a third. A third of my district is black, a third of my district is Hispanic, and a third is white and others. And so I'm not a black leader. I am a leader in Congress or a Congresswoman who is considered a leader. I don't have any leadership positions here, but just saying I'm a black leader maybe confines me to only blacks, so I would prefer to be called Congressman Watson.
BOND: But it also suggests that you're only interested in black — in that third of your district that's black.
WATSON: Exactly. And I try to perform in such a way that I'm not confined to just the black community.
BOND: Do you think black communities in America today have a kind of crisis in leadership? We read over and over again about crises in leadership in America, particularly in black communities.
WATSON: I feel that at this point, this era, that we're missing the kind of leadership that we had a few decades ago. I think there is a need for new leadership to emerge, younger leadership. I think we really need to promote black males as leaders. There was a time that everybody would call certain names as our leaders. That time has gone. People are dying every day and behind them has to come new leaders. And I think we do have a void and we need to develop new voices and I would agree with you that we might have been remiss, but we have to identify those who are willing to sacrifice their privacy to be public people. You have to make a decision. You have to give up your personal life, your private life, and you can ask anybody who sits in Congress — you're away from your family, away from home during the week. Some of us go back every weekend to our districts and we're on the west coast. That means a five hour and fifteen minute flight twice a week. And you just by nature of where you're located neglecting — you're detached from your loved ones. That's a big sacrifice, but the person who calls him- or herself a leader has to be willing to make that kind of sacrifice and we just—we went through a period in the '80s of being selfish, you know, and it's "what I can gain myself." Well, what're you going to do for yours?"
BOND: I came over here on the subway from the House Chamber with two members of the House — two white members of the House, one from New York, one from Massachusetts — and they're relatively senior members and one of them was saying some years ago just after Bella Abzug left or before she came, perhaps, he said, "I knew all the members of the Black Caucus and I knew all the women in the Congress and I can't say that's true today." So we've had an explosion of leadership, so it's interesting to hear you say that we need a different kind of leadership or revert to another kind of leadership we had in the past even though the numbers are much larger.
WATSON: We have forty-three members now. I'm referring to a national voice that can speak for all of us, be you in elected office or not, and I think that we haven't developed new voices yet. We still depend on some of the older voices or the old voices —
WATSON: More seasoned, yes, and I think we do need to start looking at a new crop. From Los Angeles, we developed Future PAC, which is a national PAC that raises money to develop new female leaders, public servants and so on.
BOND: I was going to ask you, as a society as a whole, how can we make opportunities or create opportunities for there to be new leaders and raise them up and give them the opportunity to lead?
WATSON: See, you were a leader and we always referenced you as somebody who got out there and made a difference. We need others like you, that are college educated and so we have those — but they tend to go into private practices, you know, and so on, and don't want to get into public life. It takes too much away from you. And so —
BOND: But there's never any shortage of candidates running for office.
WATSON: Exactly. But to become a national leader adds on to that responsibility and adds to your load that you carry, because you not only are there for your constituents but you're there for everybody in this country as a spokesperson, everyone who is of color and so on. We need to develop that.
BOND: But you spoke a moment ago about reverting to a kind of national leadership that we had in the past — but aren't there new challenges today that we need a different kind of leadership?
WATSON: No. I was describing the make-up of the human being. The issues are different.
BOND: Okay. Right.
WATSON: As I said, we're in a globalized kind of economy and a globalized world where you've got to take on international relations. You can't be an isolationist, not in this world today, and so we need a person who could speak out and say, "If our jobs are outsourced, we lose." Katrina pulled the blanket off of all the poor who look like me, and so we need a spokesperson strongly out there saying, "We have got to do something about poverty and taking the color off of poverty in this country, not the cover-up but the color." and if you looked at what happened in terms of Katrina and its aftermath, most of the people were black.
BOND: You know, this doesn't have a lot to do with what we're talking about. I was watching the Monday Night Football, Atlanta playing the New Orleans Saints. They showed a picture, a photograph, of the Saints' practice facility, which is outside New Orleans, and Al Michaels, a commentator, said — and it looked very nice, pretty. He said, "Of course, FEMA fixed it up." I thought, "FEMA fixed up the New Orleans Saints practice field?" Anyway, Congressman — Congresswoman Watson — I was with a member of Congress from Chicago last night, Jan Schakowsky, and I had to introduce her and I said "Congressman" and I'm so sorry and I'm apologizing to her now and Congresswoman Watson.
WATSON: That's all right.
BOND: Thank you so much for being with us.
WATSON: Well, I appreciate you, of all people, coming here, and I was very impressed, I said, "Julian Bond is going to come and interview me."
BOND: Yes. I came on the subway.
WATSON: On these issues and I do appreciate it. I appreciate your concern and the fact that you're delving into what makes a leader.
BOND: We appreciate your — this is a busy time for you and we appreciate your taking this time. You came right here from the House floor and I'm surprised you haven't been called back.
WATSON: Well, by the fact that you are seeing us — well, we will be late tonight, but I think this is an important thing that you're doing and I appreciate being part of it.
BOND: We're glad to have had you.
WATSON: Thank you.
Transcript from http://blackleadership.virginia.edu/transcript/watson-diane.