Julian Bond interviews U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton in this installment of "Explorations in Black Leadership." The series is presented by the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia.
BOND: Eleanor Holmes Norton, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Let me start with some questions about Brown v. Board. When you heard about the decision, what did it mean to you?
NORTON: Well, as it turns out, it had great meaning to me. I was sitting in Dunbar High School here in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1954, and the District of Columbia was one of the Brown cases. Dunbar High School is a storied high school where many African Americans of note attended over the decades. It was the first public high school for African Americans in the United States, so that the race consciousness in this school, which was for many years the only college preparatory high school for black children in the city -- that race consciousness, that civic consciousness, was fairly high.
It was certainly high enough so that the principal, who is still living today, Mr. Charles Lofton, sounded the buzzer that tells you that the principal is about to make an announcement. Brown was one of the most memorable days in my life because I recall his being very clear that he had an important announcement to be made. I don't remember the exact words, but I remember that they were words to the effect that the Supreme Court of the United States had just declared schools like this school to be in violation of the Constitution of the United States because this school is a segregated school, segregated by law. The Dunbar High School had many teachers with Ph.D.s or other advanced degrees. It was an occasion when teachers broke down --
BOND: Yes, I noticed you wrote about teachers crying.
NORTON: Yes. The historic significance to Dunbar was very great where this school had stood for excellence -- indeed, for public education itself, for African Americans as the first high school for African Americans set up right after the turn of the century, of the nineteenth century, that is. So it was a moment of not cheering, the kind of cheering you see today, but of awe and of reverence for the teachers who seemed to believe that they had an obligation to, at the same time, convey to us the historical importance of the moment.
BOND: Can you remember what you thought then that importance would be -- what it would mean to you then, as opposed to how it's turned out?
NORTON: The District of Columbia was a city where people had been striving for decades to integrate, as it were, fairly basic institutions. It was a city which had been majority -- was still a majority white city when I grew up and when Dunbar -- when this decision was announced. It was a city where everything was segregated. The public accommodations, the schools. It was a Southern town for all intents and purpose, so that throughout my entire life in school and at home, discussion of bigotry and racial segregation had been constant, so that I immediately believed -- and as it turns out in the District of Columbia, believed correctly -- that the schools in the District of Columbia would become integrated immediately. And they did.
I was in the eleventh grade. My sister Portia was in the tenth grade. We remained at Dunbar but my third sister went to the nearest high school to our home, Roosevelt High School. Portia and I had to get a bus and then to get a streetcar to Dunbar to a neighborhood that was even then a dangerous neighborhood, but it was where Dunbar had been located. And now people could go to high schools nearest them, although many jurisdictions did not feel the impact of Brown immediately. The District of Columbia was ready for it and I believed that this school would be no longer segregated, and my goodness, it was no longer segregated.
BOND: Now, looking back at it from the perspective of more than fifty years -- looking back, what do you think it has turned out to mean? After this initial success in Washington, D.C., what has it turned out to mean?
NORTON: Well, if by that you mean in terms of the integration of the schools, Dunbar was not integrated even then because there were no white people around school. There were schools that were integrated because there were many white people still living in the District of Columbia and the fact that the schools are largely black today has nothing to do with Brown v. Board of Education -- has to do with white flight, which occurred for a number of reasons. Yes, school integration was one of them, but it also occurred because of the expansion of the population and people as they got better off, tended to move out of the city. And when you move out of the city you look for places where the schools are good and, by the way, the black middle class also moved in large numbers out of the schools, so it left a city which had been a city of very considerably middle class, black and white, still in many ways a middle class city, but with a greater proportion of poor people than would have been the case in 1954.
So, yes, the schools do not look like they did right after Brown v. Board of Education, but I think it is a big mistake to somehow draw a straight line from Brown to the state of the schools today since Brown promised no more than to lift the veil of official imprimatur from segregation. It didn't promise much more than that. We didn't want the integration of schools to take place because we thought that there must be schools where you could get a better education than at Dunbar, but we did think that there were schools where there were better facilities, and we did believe that the education of children would be enhanced if they could be educated together rather than separated off into racial groupings.
BOND: Now, what has it meant to your life personally, not just the Brown decision and the integration of schools, but this chain of civil rights victories that came during this period in the courts -- what has this meant to you?
NORTON: I just -- I have to step back, and -- particularly as a person who has studied history -- and think about why it moved me so. It seemed to me that there was an understanding of young people in my generation that we were at a unique moment in time for our people, for black people, when for the first time the Supreme Court of the United States said separate but equal is unconstitutional. You don't have to go to Dunbar High School to understand that is very significant. So, for me, the seriousness of the moment, the desire to take advantage of the moment and in any and every way I could was, I think, only made more --made clearer by having -- by being in a segregated high school when that decision was announced and having the matter put to us as it was by the principal. If you didn't get it, you got it that day, when he made a very special point of it. I must say, for the black middle class in the District of Columbia, for the black community in general, and for my own parents, that there was a deep sense of anger, in the first place, that people who were striving for education, were striving to improve themselves, would ever have been segregated, so we thought this was our just due.
BOND: Now, this is a natural segue. When you look back over your life, who are the people who've been most influential, who've had the biggest impact on it? I'd imagine it began with your family.
NORTON: Oh, truly, it began with my parents and my grandmother, with the people closest --
BOND: And your aunt.
NORTON: -- to me. Aunt Selena. What that illustrates to me is how important it is for children to be surrounded by family of some kind. It doesn't need to be my extended family. I was very fortunate, but when I see what has happened to children today, the importance of family to the survival of black people over the centuries and decades becomes more -- becomes clearer to me than ever. When you consider that African Americans had nothing but their family and their church -- the government not only didn't care about them but was working against them -- and you see what's happened to so many black children today, then you have special appreciation for your own family.
I was the oldest and -- I was not the first grandchild. Selena's son was the first grandchild, but he was much older than I was, so for all intents and purposes, I was the first grandchild and treated as such because it was a -- these were old-fashioned black folks that the first child had more responsibility and perhaps had greater attention paid to her because -- you know, all I can say is I didn't have long for that because Portia came along thirteen months later, and Nellie, my third sister, I am not three years older. It seems like my parents said -- we joked, or my grandmother joked with my father, that she knew what that was all about, these three children coming one after another. It was the attempt to get a boy and they all failed and he gave up.
BOND: What did your parents and this extended family instruct you in, and I don't mean in the formal sense, "Now, you better do this, you better do that." What was the ethos in the family?
NORTON: Yeah, I think, since everybody really, frankly even today, gets nurtured in the same core values. People who go out and rob and steal get nurtured in the same core values. I think that if I look at myself and try to say, "What is that they instilled in you besides the normal? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I mean, what does that mean if you have three sisters and you're sharing, or wanting yours and she wants hers and you fight? So I mean, I don't think those things resonate until later in life when you're forming a sense, a larger sense, of who you are. But what did resonate very early in my life was an early sense of leadership that I think came from being the first child. Now, I must say that I don't think my father or mother were responsible for this so much as my grandmother and my aunt. Their back door -- or their back yards somehow on one street faced our backyards, so we went back and forth all the time. And this -- psychologists think that first children are imbued with this anyway, this notion of being the first child and the first child strives towards excellence. The first child believes that more is expected of her than the rest and they cite all kinds of statistics that show that. I don't know about that. All I know is that was in fact the case in my case, that I had a head start because my grandmother never said, "You're the first child and this is what you're supposed to do," but there are devices I absolutely remember that now seems to me were to imbue me with a sense that I had a special responsibility.
BOND: What kind of devices?
NORTON: Well, the one that I think is most transparent is when she sent me to the store, I think it was for some meat or some chops, and I came back and she said, "Well, Eleanor, how did you -- ?" I mean, I was only about seven years old, sent to the Safeway. She said, "Eleanor, tell me about how you got him to give you these chops." This was when the Safeway had an actual butcher behind the counter. And I said, "Well, he asked me which did I want, and I said, `I don't want that one, I want this one and this one.' " Well, and I brought them home. I remember sitting -- this is one of many instances, but as I say, now that I look back on it, this one is particularly transparent -- in the summer and spring after school I would often sit with my grandmother on the front porch and there were some orange and green chairs, rocking chairs, and we'd rock and everybody goes by, [she] knows everybody, and you pass the news of the day. And the news of the day for days running was, "Let me tell you what this child did today. Well, I sent her to the Safeway and the man -- she'd never been before, this was her first time. And when it came to choosing lamb chops and you know how difficult that is to do," she would say, "This is what the child said -- " Now, here I am sitting there rocking with grandmother, looking at her, listening to her brag on me that way. She didn't say to me, "What a wonderful child you are. Oh, you showed great discrimination in doing that." She told other people about it. And somehow that said to me, "Well, my goodness, that's a standard." I think it said to me that is a standard I must try to meet more often.
BOND: So the lamb chops lesson is in effect a lecture given to others that you hear --
NORTON: Just news given to others.
BOND: It was a reflection of how you ought to behave and what you ought to do in the future and how you ought to comport yourself.
NORTON: Yes, as opposed to a didactic notion of either this is how you do it or this is wonderful that you have done. She asked me what had happened. I told her what had happened. She then told everybody on the block what had happened. And I think, like grandmothers are said to have, she had a certain kind of wisdom that parents often don't bring when they're trying to tell children what to do because they're responsible for discipline. My grandmother wasn't so much -- I don't remember being disciplined by her.
BOND: Outside the family, what about teachers -- grade school, Dunbar, college, law school?
NORTON: I just feel fortunate that because -- apparently now -- because if you were an African American in Washington, D.C., which was a very highly educated city for black people because it had Howard University, it had government employment -- if you were an African American, you would have been encouraged to get higher education, but you would've had very few places to exercise it. And one of the places to exercise it would have been in teaching. And I recall feeling that I had very good teachers. I remember very specifically who those teachers were. I can't tell you that a particular teacher among them all was instrumental in anything I did. I do believe that the excellence of these teachers in elementary, junior high school, and high school combined for a purpose, a purpose of making us want to do better.
BOND: And I noticed you mentioned Telford Taylor, Fred Rodell, and Pauli Murray. What influence did they have on you?
NORTON: Well, probably, if you want to go to that end of my life, in law school it would be A. Leon Higginbotham, the black judge I clerked for getting out of -- when I got out of law school. Now, there's where you learn -- there's where you learn, if you think you have a sense of excellence now, you will have it elevated when you deal with a man like Judge Higginbotham, a man for all intents and purposes, had Democrats been in power, would've been on the Supreme Court. [A man] whose sense of intellectual curiosity led him finally, when he got to a certain point, to leave the Court of Appeals and to become a scholar, who, when I clerked for him had me not only researching what a case was about, or matter was about before him, but whenever he'd go to give a speech, he'd have me go to the library to find out certain kinds of facts upon which he would build a speech and that has really stuck with me. Instead of speaking in generalities, I've always felt that I had to start from a factual base and then make a point, and I think Higginbotham had a lot to do with that. Pauli Murray -- this was an extraordinary woman who in her time, which means my time, was seen as something of a curiosity because she understood feminism before any woman I --
BOND: Before people used the word.
NORTON: Right. And before any woman I know, frankly. I met her when she was pursuing, of all degrees, an advanced degree in law, which nobody goes to get at Yale Law School. I think that might have been because when she would have been in law school, schools like Yale and Harvard didn't accept women. I think she may have been simply proving something to herself, because she ultimately became an Episcopal priest. This was a woman that -- I must say, when she was at Yale, because she was older, a black American getting this kind of degree, she seemed to many a curiosity. To me, she seemed somebody you wanted to talk to.
BOND: And did you talk to her? Did you have a conversation with her about her life and what propelled her and did that rub off on you?
NORTON: Certainly about her life. Her life was very different. I find it -- this notion about role models and so forth is a very important notion and means a great deal, particularly to young people today. When I try to think, "Well, did it mean a great deal to me?" I believe that the reason it did not is because I was a little colored girl and there weren't any role models. That is to say, I had -- if you were looking for people to be like, well, who was I going be like? Marian Anderson? I can't sing. If you wanted to go to college, and that is something I wanted to do from I think the time I came out of the womb because my parents -- if you just grow up in a household like that, you want to do that --
I think we did not use so much the notion of role models because there weren't a lot of them. What we did use was black history. This was very much of a black history town because -- come on Eleanor. I've just gotten his house --
BOND: Carter G. Woodson.
NORTON: Carter G. Woodson was headquartered right in this town, and we got the Negro History Bulletin every week or -- I won a prize. I remember in elementary school. I still have a little book for being able to talk about, to answer questions and they would stand you up and pass down the line questions, and being able to ask questions about black heroes. But at the same time, to be absolutely candid, when you are reading about black heroes, many of them dead, it was hard to regard them as role models.
BOND: But at the same time, can't you say that you took from Higginbotham some idea of what a scholar was or could be?
NORTON: Oh, he was certainly a role model.
BOND: And from Pauli Murray this older woman, who is trying to achieve a degree beyond the law degree, some example of what women might do?
NORTON: Oh, there's no question. If you talk about the differences between when I am a grown woman, albeit still in my formative years, and when I'm a child, there's no question by that time with the civil rights movement starting, with the opportunities I had to meet these two black people in particular, their lives did inform what I thought was possible for my life if I would try to imitate the best of what I saw in them. And I'm telling you, what I saw in them was not excellence, it was pluperfect excellence. These were -- I mean people today would call them super Negroes. These were people who were the best of the --
I remember Judge Higginbotham telling me that when he was considered first for the District Court -- it was very rare when he was considered, he was thirty-four years old, there were almost no blacks on the Federal District Court. He went on also to be on the Court of Appeals. He said they couldn't find one penny in his tax statements and in his life that had not been accounted for. I mean, I saw Higginbotham say to his secretary -- have her keep an account of anything that -- any use of his office that could be considered private so that he could pay it at the end of the tax year. That's somebody you -- particularly if you're a young lawyer, that's somebody you need to see.
I remember -- who is it that taught me transparent candor? I'm not sure quite sure, but I learned the notion of -- so just how deep honesty had to be, from clerking for Higginbotham. And I was trying to think of the whole notion of candor, who taught me that candor was better than hiding stuff, that if you let -- that if you yourself say what has happened, you have a better chance than if you try to hide it, but I forget who taught me that.
BOND: Continuing on, how did you choose your career? Were there lawyers in the District and you said, "Gee, I can do that," or "I want to do that," or people you met early on? Was it Antioch? How did you decide, fix on the law?
NORTON: I think the civil rights movement had everything to do with it, that here's where when you come to consciousness matters. If I'm going to law school in -- I'm sorry, if I'm going to college -- it was probably my second or third year in the mid '50s and the Montgomery bus boycott has broken out, the Brown decision has occurred, there are almost no black lawyers. My own father was a lawyer, but he never practiced because lawyers in his generation could be criminal lawyers and that's about all. It seemed to me, I just thought I was very fortunate to be born at a time when I knew there would be civil rights lawyers and I consider myself very fortunate indeed.
BOND: And you knew there were things you could do to advance the cause of civil rights?
NORTON: I was sure I could do it through the law because there were so few African American lawyers in the first place, much less African American lawyers who were in fact engaged in civil rights because most were engaged in criminal practice or --
BOND: Wills or contracts.
NORTON: Small civil practice is very important, but I wasn't driven by those professional needs. I was driven by the fact that here was this important movement. There was much to be done. I mean, all right, the Supreme Court declared separate but equal and do it at all deliberate speed. Everybody could fathom from that that somebody was going to have to go ahead and make that happen through the law, even as the Brown decision occurred through the law. But more than that, it was -- remember, the civil rights movement broke out because Brown was not self-executing in lifting segregation from this country. For example, in employment and housing, everything remained the same, actually, after Brown and even if the schools had been integrated all over the United States, everything else would've been the same in where you could be employed, where you could eat -- and so the need to break through that and the fact that the law had broken through it as nothing else had.
BOND: Earlier on, you saw Mary Terrell picketing Woolworth's here in the District of Columbia, and you described it as a consciousness-raising moment. What did that -- ?
NORTON: For a little kid, yes.
BOND: What did you take away from seeing her do that? Did you know she was a noted figure when you saw her?
NORTON: No, indeed. No, indeed. The notion of somebody picketing at all in the '50s during the -- when there was no social action -- was itself, particularly for a kid, an event that made a lasting impression. And then you join that with what we had always learned, and we were always pressing for, which was to live in a society where we would be treated as equals. Then, of course, her act seemed, to me, nothing short of revolutionary. No, she didn't get arrested, she just picketed, but that was so rare in the 1950s and it was such a wonderful example to see somebody of her age picketing about something we all felt deeply about and had not ourselves done. That's why when the civil rights movement broke out, somebody like me, was of an age, who was really ready for it.
BOND: Not only ready for it, but ready to take a kind of leadership position in it. In high school and middle school, not only are you academically successful, but you're active socially. You're community service, you're in lots of clubs, you're president of some clubs. Those are leadership positions. Can you say that that's a beginning of your leadership in the broad sense? That's the beginning of your thinking that "I can run this, I can be in charge of this, I can lead this"?
NORTON: I do believe, though, that if you want to trace back where your sense of leadership comes from and it is true that -- well, I trace it all the way back to my grandmother who in a sense gives you leadership.
BOND: But I'm talking about the exercise of leadership. Your grandmother gives you the idea?
NORTON: Well, no, she gave me more than the exercise of it because she expected me to do it. She expected me to do -- remember, I'm supposed to be the leader of these three girls. "Good luck" is all I can say on that, but there was a clear expectation that I would, in fact, if not be a leader, do things at a level of excellence and that probably for her, since some of this came from my being the first child, the leadership child, all of that, it seems to me, is wrapped up in the same set of ideas and, yes, expectations she gave me. All right.
All right, by the time you go to elementary school and junior high and the rest, yes, leadership becomes more natural and you look for ways to lead and there's no question that I did that. Although there was a sense of modesty that we were brought up with, that, you know -- the kinds of things that people do today would have been considered really quite brazen. You know, I wanted to lead, but I didn't want to get out there and look like I was greedy for leadership. And I thought that that would've been considered inelegant and people wouldn't like that, so the point was to somehow deal with your desire to lead within a context that made it acceptable to yourself and to everyone else. And I remember -- I distinctly remember feeling that. But I must say, I think it's very important to say that there are -- should I say, most people -- people who may be looking at us -- will not have had the kind of leadership head start that somebody like me had, that is to say, almost from the cradle being expected to, as it were, lead and, yes, having been imbued with that sense that leadership was possible, reaching out to lead at a very young age.
The reason I'm reluctant to think that that is a model is that I think many people, especially women, especially girls, especially many black people, may not have found themselves in an environment where leadership was expected or possible. And so the question for them may be, "How do I make this happen when in fact I didn't have enough family that in fact encouraged it?" And "How do I make this happen when in school I wasn't a natural leader and yet I felt that I could lead?" And that's why I think leadership is very individual, that you can feel it at any moment. There are many women, for example. By the time feminism came, the notion of women in leadership positions was second nature to me. I mean, but I recognize that that was not the case for the average woman, that reading The Second Sex did have an effect upon millions of women, that Harriet Tubman was not in fact the kind of role model that made everybody want to go out and be a leader. So that I do think people have to understand, have to come to grips with the fact that leadership can in fact become possible for you based on your own individual instincts and experiences, and that it would be a mistake to think you are born to leadership.
BOND: Can you remember a time when you said in your mind, "I am a leader"? I don't mean that you got elected president of a club and said, "Okay, I'm a leader now," but was there a time when you realized that you could be a leader?
NORTON: No, I have never said, "I am a leader." I don't say it today.
BOND: You are a leader today and you have been a leader.
NORTON: Yes, I just think you inculcate -- you understand what's expected about you, and I think part of our problem is the hubris of leadership, thinking "I'm a leader," thinking "I have to make sure that everybody understands I'm a leader." If I am a leader, I think that will become clear.
BOND: Okay. So, there's no magic moment, but this comes out of your family and the image you have of something needing to be done and "I can do it."
NORTON: And the expectations that I think people had of me. Frankly, some of it is quite accidental, like I think there is something to being the first born. Although I must say that my second-born sister, Portia, who was the president of Albany State University has the very same traits I do, so that may -- she's supposed to be the middle one and the middle one is supposed to be caught in the middle, so none of that stuff really matters. What matters is tailoring your life to the circumstances that may in fact make leadership possible for you at a time when you didn't think you were a leader.
BOND: But there are all these studies that you mentioned a moment ago about birth order --
NORTON: Yeah, birth order.
BOND: -- and what effect it has on people. You're the first-born. There're also studies that say the second born has the advantage of being in the middle and therefore has -- absorbs what the first born absorbed and learns lessons and so on, so there're all these stories.
NORTON: A more balanced person and, you know, first-borns have very positive and very negative traits like --
BOND: Is that true about Portia?
NORTON: Is she more balanced that you?
NORTON: No, I think she's just like me. She [might] just as well had been the first-born.
BOND: I've met Portia. I know Portia, and she's very well balanced. But, still, you tell a story about your grandmother teaching you to stand up for your rights and the rights of others at least by the time you're seven.
BOND: How'd that come?
NORTON: Well, first of all, race was always discussed. Race was discussed at home between my parents. Race was a constant subject, and race was discussed in this way -- if I may kind of characterize it, because these would not be the exact words. I mean, you look all around you, you see black people in a segregated city, you see them going to school part-time at Howard, you see them going to the Miner Teacher's College, you see them going full-time at Howard, you see -- you have Dunbar High School preparing people to go to all the best schools in the United States -- and they left that high school to go everywhere in the United States every single year -- and so the talk is about living in a society surrounded by mediocre white people who have the power to segregate you and what to do about it.
BOND: Even at age seven?
NORTON: Because it's not talking to you, it is the way in which conversation around you occurs, so that you get to -- and here I have to give the credit to my family and I must say, to the black community in Washington. There was this sense. Remember, this was a southern town. Many of the people here were from Maryland and Virginia. They brought those attitudes with them. Those were white segregated states. We did not regard the whites who came from those states to work here in the government as people who exemplified the best traits in the society. And yet they had, as it were, power over us. So our sense, the sense I think that came particularly to young people was that whatever segregation was about, it was not about being inferior, because we felt we were surrounded by mediocre white people or southern white people who didn't seem to be striving for as much education as we, had not gone to a high school like Dunbar, had not sent their children away to all the best schools on scholarship, so what is this about inferiority? I never remember feeling in the District of Columbia that segregation had anything to do with inferiority. That may have had a lot to do also with the fact that we did not have signs, we did not have the fountains and the rest --
BOND: White and colored signs.
NORTON: -- that humiliated or designed to humiliate people.
BOND: But to what extent does a seven-year-old girl have of this larger white world? My picture of you at seven years old is living in comfortable circumstances surrounded by black people, going to schools taught by black people, principals are black people, living, in effect, in a black world. Now, your parents have a broader experience in that, but what do white people mean to you when you were seven?
NORTON: Oh, you're right. I was living in a completely black world. I remember when I came back -- when we moved back to Washington -- we came back really for the first time to chair the EEOC -- I remember that huge parts of Washington I'd never been in and I remember my mother and I driving -- my father was deceased by that time -- around parts of Washington where white people lived that I had never once ventured into. Yes, we lived in a very black world, a very segregated world, whether you were going to the movies or whether you were going to school, but we lived in a world of great race consciousness, of great civil rights consciousness, a really striving African American community that knew good and well, as between ourselves and the people who segregated us, something was wrong with them, and who reinforced this, not by hatred.
There was a real sense of brotherly love as an obligation and what this meant. But -- and that's why I think black history and going to black schools mattered because you learned black history, you know, you learned "Life Every Voice & Sing" by heart because you sang it so often. There was a sense of pride, but you also learned -- you also learned, and this is something I've only had to tell myself recently, that the stereotypes of black people were not totally unfounded.
I know that that was what was trying to be communicated to us when, for example, when the teachers took us on trips. And when we went on trips, you got on the bus or the streetcar and you were told, "Just a moment. When you get on that streetcar, you know what these white people expect you to do, and you've got to be on your best behavior." Now, I remember them linking that to the stereotypic expectations of how they thought black people acted and that that was -- that we should not reinforce that stereotype. I remember that, so that there was, I don't think a sense of self-hatred, but there was a sense that said, "Look, yes, some of that is true and it's not true of you and you're supposed to show."
BOND: And don't reinforce it.
NORTON: Exactly. They were quite blunt about it, teachers were.
BOND: Let me ask you a question. Think about yourself. What do you see as the difference between your vision, your philosophy, and your style? What differences do you see between these -- your vision, your philosophy, your style?
NORTON: Oh, my vision is informed really by intellectual and actual experiences. I kind of am a big-picture person. I've had to train myself, and going to law school helped me to do this, be a detail person, so I am a more conceptual person. Style -- my style perhaps is more sophisticated than when I grew up as a colored girl in Washington, but I have to tell you, my style is not much different. I have not -- I do not see how you can change your personality. I still think of myself as a colored woman with all of the -- all that that implies in terms of style. I think of myself as a more sophisticated colored woman than I would have been if I didn't have education and hadn't had great advantages, but essentially my style comes out of my racial experience. And I think whether it is in the way I talk, in the colloquialisms, in how I relate to other people. I think my style comes out of my experience growing up in a segregated city.
BOND: What about philosophy?
NORTON: Well, my philosophy, my goodness. If somebody asked me to summarize my philosophy in one sentence, they'd have to kill me because I would be unable to do it. But my philosophy, such as it is, really, is political. It operates on a plane that is ethical. It's very hard to -- I mean, I would hate to have to give anybody a vision statement for what your philosophy of life is.
BOND: Someone suggested your philosophy could be described as a sociological philosophy, and that's to say that you believe people live in larger social and cultural structures that influence how they think and live, and that they can educate themselves and others to become accountable for changing the larger patterns in which they live.
NORTON: Well, I would say, yeah, I think you first have to be critical of the larger structure in which you live and break out of it to have some objectivity about it.
BOND: How do you come to the criticism? If you're living in a socio-cultural structure that's all about you?
NORTON: Now, that's a trap.
BOND: Yes. How do you become a critic of it?
NORTON: Well, for me, for example, I regard a turning point in my life going away not to the schools that I had been most inclined to go away to, but to Antioch College.
BOND: Yes, it seems to me that is a departure for many Dunbar graduates, although they have their choice of schools all over the country, I imagine many of them go to the historically black colleges.
NORTON: Well, frankly, they went more to the Ivy League. At least at the top of our class, that's where people would've been inclined to go and if they were going to an HBCU, it would've been Howard. We regarded that as a flagship of black America. In fact, many went there.
BOND: Antioch is off the beaten path for Dunbar graduates.
NORTON: Yes, and I went to Antioch in no small part because I believed there was a larger world. I had read E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeoisie. It really electrified me. Here I was -- Dunbar and Banneker, my junior high school, were very socially stratified. You didn't have to take a test to go to Dunbar. You went to Banneker or Dunbar. Anybody could go to Dunbar. Banneker was where you lived and so people came from a very large section. It was very stratified by aptitude in a way that people don't allow today. Well, they do allow it, actually, but I'm literally we knew exactly what seventy-six and seventy-five and there was no shame to it. But the smartest kids, you knew which they were in, and which the kids who were not as smart were in. As is always the case, where aptitude follows class, these classes also tended to have many -- not all -- but many of those from the African-American community who had had the most advantages.
My parents who had gone. I remember my father saying he was in the first grade. I really wonder what that was. When I was in the first grade, because he was going to law school and going to Terrell Law School, at that, at night, and my mother who had gone to Normal School had to go back to school to become a teacher here, but in this same class there would have been the children of that age of Howard University professors or doctors or, as they say, lawyers and Indian chiefs. This world, because it was a world unto itself, was and should have been, subject to great criticism. And what I found really electrically amazing was the criticism from inside of it --
BOND: Frazier's criticism.
NORTON: Of Frazier's criticism, and the notion of going to a school where the atmosphere was intensely intellectual and intensely social and it allowed you to go out in the world to work. Well, that was the ballgame. I believed I lived in too small a world. I believe the world reinforced wonderful things and very bad things. And the very bad things were, for example, to take from white society a sense that materialism was the be all, end all. Once you got that, you didn't much more. An example of the good things I took from it was the sense of civil rights consciousness that I got from the entire black community at a very early age.
BOND: So it must've been a big jump to go from Dunbar to Antioch, not an intellectual jump as much just a cultural jump.
NORTON: Oh, it was.
BOND: An enormous shift.
NORTON: Very much. You go into the cafeteria. If you've only gone to school with black people and it's in the mid-'50s and you go into the cafeteria and you're the only black person there, hey, you're conscious of that notion.
BOND: And I would guess, and tell me if I'm wrong, that Antioch gives you that much more so than Yale did. Or much --
NORTON: Much more so than Yale. Yale was not trying to form people. Yale was trying to put out -- well, let me step back. Yale assumed that it had bright young people who wanted to go into the law. I went to Yale for a very special reason, though. Because of the great law schools, Yale tended to at least have had great legal scholars who believed in legal realism, who had thought about law, beyond what we call the black letter law. And it also was small enough so that it was not one of these huge legal factories that might well have alienated somebody like me who had a very special reason for going to law school.
BOND: Now, your schoolmates are Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton?
NORTON: They're a few years after me.
BOND: You're not there at the same time?
NORTON: No. They're a few years after me. The -- it's important to note, though, that another reason I chose Yale was because Yale allowed you to get a master's degree and law degree at the same time.
BOND: Why was that important?
NORTON: It was absolutely not important. What had been important was, and here is where I owe Antioch a great deal because the social action -- the notion about converting what you believe into action -- was very much alive there, but as I said, it was an intensely intellectual atmosphere. Most people went on to get a Ph.D. It was amazing. I would say almost the average graduate would get the Ph.D. There were maybe three of us who went to law school, two of the three to Yale, and, you know, three or four to medical school, but basically going on for greater knowledge. And as much as I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, I really did believe it was a trade. It wasn't a craft. It did not necessarily take the mind and expand it to understand the world. Meanwhile, I had studied history. C. Vann Woodward and John Morton Blum, I would say without a doubt the greatest historians of their period, were both teaching there, so somehow I thought I could have both worlds. I would study history, American Studies. I would study law. So I went to law school four years -- the first year only law, the third year only law, second and third [fourth] year part law, part graduate school, and that was for no reason. I understood it would be for no reason. I've never used the master's degree and I've never had one day of regret that it took me another year to get out of law school because I wanted to pursue it.
BOND: But if you've not used it in the formal sense, you've certainly used it in the informal sense.
BOND: Your master's and the history, especially Woodward, I mean, had to inform you about Ways and Means, and things that you could not have gotten had you just been a regular law student.
NORTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the notion of being able to sit there and listen, to see what is different about -- what am I hearing that's different? What makes this a great man? All of that was -- you know, we never know how those things settle into the brain and somehow make a part of who you become and how you -- the cumulative effect of how you run your life, but I'm certain that that was important to do. I mean, it is important to me not only to develop myself professionally.
You know, as I say to my law students, because I still teach one course at Georgetown Law School, you've got to understand any fool can pass the bar, if you look around at people who are lawyers. You can understand it, if you put enough time into it. You can do that. I think that's true of intellectuals. I think it's a more rarified, more competitive, deeper pursuit and calling where you are reading all the time to try to expand yourself, to try to understand your discipline and through it, other things. Now, we do that. Legal scholars do that as well, but it's far more precisely pointed toward narrow, narrow parts of what most people would consider the life of a human being because it's in law books, it's in the development of the law.
BOND: Let me go back to your vision. Has your vision changed over time? I don't necessarily mean made radical shifts, but the vision you had of life and how it would work out at Antioch, let's say, has that changed?
NORTON: Oh, yeah.
BOND: Did Yale change it and did your subsequent civil rights work as a lawyer change it and how so?
NORTON: Oh, I think it changes all along. True, there is a continuum there, because I have had the great good fortune literally to be able to work in the field that most -- the civil rights field. If you look at going to law school, then working at the ACLU and at the EEOC, I have been very fortunate. And yet I think that I am far more likely to look now at some of the things I thought, and to believe -- then, now and then, to always keep from being caught in your moment in time. And I think people of our generation really have to watch out about that because your moment in time is very special. If you were a young person who came to consciousness with Brown, the sit-in movement, the only mass movement in the streets in our history in this country, that moment in time is so special for the country and for you, that it is very easy to get locked into it and therefore to judge everything by what you thought then.
Time has moved on and I have a great critique of how -- and I'm always thinking about how black people, for example, should be approaching their lives in this country. It's a whole lot different from what I thought when I was, for example, in the streets trying to get an EEOC. One of the things we marched for was we wanted a fair employment practice. Well, we got it. And should we still be focused, and I'm not suggesting that we are, on the issues that animated us thirty or forty years ago?
I, for example, am focused on an issue that it never occurred to me to be focused on when I was in the Civil Rights movement although it did not begin then. It began, I know the moment in time it began, because it was I think in the early '70s and that is on the huge deterioration of the black family where 70 percent of the children are born to never-married women with catastrophic effects on black children. And I find that extremely disturbing since the only way I think that black people made it in this society at all was through family and extended family and the church.
BOND: But how did that become a part of your vision when it did? I mean, the issue was out there and suddenly -- well, maybe not even suddenly, but anyway, it becomes an issue, the family and the status of the family, the deterioration of family. How does that come to you? How does that come into your consciousness?
NORTON: I remember exactly how it came to me. I was -- Vernon Jordan invited -- I go back to in preparing speeches and things and this comes from [A. Leon] Higginbotham, always looking for facts that people don't know, that help you then make a point that they might be interested in, as opposed to simply going at speeches rhetorically. And I remember just being dumbfounded by the fact that -- this was in the early '70s -- just coming upon some statistical material that said a third of children were born, were being raised by single mothers. Now, I'm sure many of these mothers had been married. I'm talking about never-married women when I say 70 percent today. But that was astounding to me. I had never thought about it.
I think it was about 1974, Vernon Jordan invited me to give the keynote speech at the Urban League final dinner where you had this large crowd of people. And for the life of me, I think I was then Human Rights Commissioner of New York City so I think it may have had to do with the fact that that might have been one of those U.N. Year of the Woman? I believe that may have been, although that's not how he said it. And, of course, I could speak on anything.
So, I said, "What do I do if I have all these black people, 3,000 or something in the room, what do I speak about?" I didn't think I should give them a lesson in feminism. Black women were beginning to make the point about how we were both black and female, and you better come to understand it. This kept in my brain about this one-third, so how to approach it? And this also may go to the questions you asked earlier about leadership. This was about a little over ten years after the Moynihan Report and in a real sense, what had silenced the issue, I thought, was the messenger. Because it seemed to me that the messenger must have had the message right, but it didn't lie in his mouth and I had this sense of probably the reason it silenced it because we were in the middle of civil rights movement. And we were trying to get laws on the books and get them enforced and here somebody comes up talking about your mama, as they say. You all better talk about whether you're going to --
BOND: They didn't want to hear it.
NORTON: Right, they didn't want to hear it. And particularly from a white man and I've since had many conversations with Moynihan, but it struck me as I had to think about what to speak about at the convention that "the fault lies with people like you, Eleanor. If you don't think Moynihan should have said it, or if he wasn't the right messenger, do you have the nerve to say it?" And you know what, I didn't want to go in there and have people put me out, so how do I do this?
NORTON: So I decided to write this speech in the form of a love letter from a black woman to a black man. It had all the statistics in it, but it had all of the forlorn rhetoric about how together, whether it was slavery where people -- people's marriages. It was not until 18- -- I don't think this was in the speech -- but it was not until 1866 that the Congress said marriages between black people are now recognized. So even if you haven't had a legal marriage, that is recognized. Now, I mean, that's just how deep was this country's foot in the black family's trials, and yet those families had somehow brought us through.
Essentially, that was the theme of the speech, how the families brought us through, what the statistics were now, but talking about what had really brought us through was him and me -- black man, black woman. And all I can tell you, Julian, is at the end of that speech it was as if they were carrying me out of the room on their shoulders. It was a real lesson in leadership. It was as if -- "Thank God somebody has said it who is one of us." And people realized it --
BOND: I was going to say, isn't it that people said when Moynihan said it, "I thought it might be true, but I didn't want to hear it because he was saying it and I didn't like the way he said it"?
BOND: And now all of a sudden someone has come along to say it's okay to talk about these things. These are serious problems. That is a real exercise in leadership.
NORTON: And it really taught me something about leadership that I had not known before. I was scared. I was thinking, "Well, people are going to say, 'Oh no, here's she's like Moynihan.' "
BOND: She's going to dump on black men.
NORTON: Right, dump on black men. But it taught me something. It really did teach me that I had -- that we patronize black people when we believe that they don't want to hear self-evident truths and that the burden is on us to find a way to say it, so that they want to hear it from us, but not to assume that it should not be said at all. And every experience I've had in talking about the black family ever since has reinforced that.
By the way, I find the same thing about other verboten subjects like what you do if you're in a room and somebody says something that's anti-Semitic. I know what you'd say if somebody -- white people sit there and say nothing. If a black -- if some language is used that is derogatory of blacks, we're the first to criticize it. And it does seem to me that you find a way. And I have -- and it's rare that that's happened, that you find that kind of comment. You'll find it in black groups about Jews or even about Hispanics, somebody who is kind of not in the room that you feel, and you've got to find a way to say, "You don't mean Jews, do you?" Or, "You mean -- ?" And the person will normally say, "Oh, no, of course, what I mean is -- " But you don't let it go by and you don't assume that nobody wants to hear it, but that if you find a way to say it, precisely because you're in the room. We're in the room together. The fact that we're in the room together and they feel free to say those things means you are free to say why perhaps that's not the thing to say.
BOND: But, again, that strikes me as a leadership definition that you're in the room, you're having this conversation, things are said that shouldn't be said or ought to be challenged, and typically people just let them go, pass them by or skip to another subject. And it takes some degree of leadership to say "No."
NORTON: And where did I learn that? I learned that from resenting the fact that white people sit around talking about black people in all kinds of ways --
BOND: When we're not in the room.
NORTON: When we're not in the room. And reinforcing, and have over the centuries reinforced racism because nobody would say, "Look, come on." And if that has been our critique, and boy, it's been our critique, it really does not pay for at least -- I don't expect the average black person to feel that they've got to get up and do this, but it does seem to me that ever so gently, it is a burden of leadership.
BOND: You look at black America today and there's a tremendous crisis in what is called the underclass -- family disintegration of the sort you've described, fatherless families, the numbers going up, women with children never married, not just divorced or widowed, absence of some kind of corrective structures that say, you know, "We need to do better than this." How do we deal with this?
NORTON: This is a difficult issue and I think it's the overriding issue of the black community today unlike when I was in the civil rights movement forty years ago where the overriding issues were just sheer opportunity basics. Now that you have this opportunity, there are millions of black children who can't take advantage of it because they don't have the nurturing of families. By families, I mean families of any configuration. We haven't had nuclear families as the only family. Of course, until the 1970s, nuclear families were the rule in the African American community, but it was also the rule to have extended families, which do not thrive nearly as much in urban settings and those children are raising themselves very often. Getting into this issue is very different from getting into a better education or the rest of it, but all of that may depend upon whether we get into this issue of surrounding children, if not with nuclear families, at least with proxies for those families. I don't talk --
I have worked with this issue now in a pro-active way at least since that Urban League speech. In the early '80s, I wrote the first piece in a major magazine that frankly discussed the black family. It appeared in the New York Times Magazine. All of the major civil rights organizations speak about family, find ways to deal with family in one sense or the other. The way I have found that is most satisfying to me may be ironic, because as I analyze what has happened, what we have is a huge generation of girls who have profited from the attention that feminists gave to opportunity, have profited from birth control, from the availability of abortion, and are -- we have fewer and fewer -- or at least teenage pregnancy is going down. That's on the one hand. I see progress for girls and women.
And I see the opposite for boys and men. That for both whites and blacks, there are more women graduating from college. The white men, of course, may find less than a college education giving them quite a good income -- for example, in IT or some of the professions like that, high technology and the rest of it. That is not what is happening to black men. What has happened to black men is a combination of ruthless law enforcement strategies like mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines that have sent an entire generation of drug peddling, non-violent black men to jail. What's happening to black men is that the street culture which now, of course, is amplified through television and the media, siphons off young men at a very early age, indeed, when they're children, into the underground economy. And because there are not jobs for able-bodied people who don't have good educations, as there were for their fathers and grandfathers, they've created their own economy -- a drug economy and a gun-running economy and the rest of it.
Therefore, since seeing this truly catastrophic, in my judgment, difference between the number of marriageable young women -- and this is women of every class -- and marriageable young men, I want to know whether we can bring the boys and men at least to the point where the girls are, so they can form families and want to form families. And I've started here something called the Commission on Black Men and Boys. It's preparing an action plan. It's not your normal commission. It consists of men with credibility with black men and their families in the District of Columbia. We've had hearings, but they're like none of the hearings we have on the Hill. All kinds of people come that you would never expect to come, and we're talking straight out about some stuff here.
I'll give you an example. The first one was on the family, and we had a judge who had -- now, a federal judge who had grown up as a thug to talk about how he got away from that life. And then we had three witnesses -- a family -- a woman raising two sons, a man raising two sons, and a third black family raising two sons and a daughter, and they each testified. [We] said, "You all listen to them yourselves and you decide." And then at the end of the hearing, the Commission -- I'm not on the Commission, remember, these are black men -- they take testimony from the people who come, so they can testify, too, because there are a small number of witnesses and they get up and testify.
It's a moment like the moment at the Urban League in 1974 that told me, "People are ready, where's the leadership on this?" It's real hard to find a way in. You've got to deal with people as they are, and then you've got to deal with the generation who may in fact be different. You've got to find your way into it. I thought feminism was a way into a whole set of problems for women. It takes two to tango if you're going to have a family. Somebody's got to deal with the fact that I'm a card-carrying feminist has not diminished my interest in what has happened to black boys and men. If anything, it's increased it.
BOND: I saw a frightening statistic in the New York Times the other day. I can't remember if it was Paul Krugman or who, but he talked about class integration in public schools -- not racial integration but class integration in public schools -- and the frightening statistic for me was when you take girls from the lower class and put them in a middle class school, they thrive. When you take boys, they do worse. They fail. And you just wonder what's going on here and how can you grab it and correct it? Why are these girls doing so well -- from poor circumstances, once put in a challenging environment -- and why these boys do so poorly once put in that environment?
NORTON: And somebody needs to study that and you can, in fact, we can learn what the difference is if you're willing to probe deeply enough. I trace the beginning of the problems in the black family not to any cultural or other attitudes. I trace it very specifically to the flight of decent paying manufacturing jobs from the cities and other places. And you see a steep decline in the black family with people getting married and having children at the very same time that you see black males falling out of the labor force because the jobs that --
BOND: The strong-backed jobs are gone.
NORTON: -- the strong-backed jobs are gone. So then you have to have men ready to do something that black men have never been ready to do before because it hasn't paid. You get a college education and you can get a job, so black women tended to get jobs -- [they] need a college education because they were teachers or nurses. Black men made more than their college-educated wives as laborers. Now, you've got to retrain these men, meanwhile -- or reorient, not retrain -- reorient these men so that education is seen and, of course, many are being reoriented.
The problem is that for a boy living in the inner city -- and brought up now, I would say, for the last thirty years in the inner city -- he is brought up no differently from the way men have been brought up in America forever, and that is to equate manhood with money. Therefore, if you do not have money, then you do not do what men do, and one of the things men do with money or with resources, is to marry and have children. They have children, and what's frightening is they often have many children without acknowledging those children.
I think if you care anything about black children, if you think that they ought to have the same fair chance at life that you and I had, you have to do more than say, "Well, let's deal with this when they get in school," or "Let's make sure that we get plenty of programs from the Congress." You've got to also deal with the fact that people are not forming families, and you've got to deal with your own heritage -- that these families are what brought you through. Not the government, the government didn't care beans about black people. It used all of its power against black people. The reason black people became Democrats is that for the first time at least the government said that the hand-out was available to blacks as well. Yes, you could get Social Security if you were black or if you were white. Yes, if there was a death of the male partner or he left, you would not be left to charity and you would not starve. My own sense of what you have to do evolves as I see even those institutions need changing because, for example, those institutions were created for people who once were married, and our community got to the point where it was dependent on those -- on something like welfare.
That's why I think you have to keep rethinking. If you think of yourself as I think people in my generation thought of themselves as change-makers, then you can't just stop making change because you made some change when you were twenty-two. If you're a change-maker, you've got to be self-critical of the change you made.
BOND: Very quickly, because our time is ticking away -- how can we create or foster effective leaders for the future?
NORTON: People are in different positions to do that. If you are in the Congress, you have a special obligation because you speak to people all the time, because you have internships and the rest, but what people who have had a fair chance at life have to understand is something occurs today that I have to say I do not remember being particularly important when I was growing up. Maybe it was because the media wasn't important. But apparently, young people really do want to talk to role models. They really do want to learn from people whom they regard as successful. I never -- and some of this devolves into something that I really don't like, which is a sense of celebrity, celebrity for its own sake.
But leaving that aside, it does seem to me that whether you're living on a street with some kids who're being bad, and you're simply living on that street, or whether you are a member of Congress, you've got to ask yourself, "Do I have a role to play with these young people?" And because people have so many different roles in society, you've got to figure that out for yourself. But if you feel as I do that many young people today have lost their way, it certainly isn't enough to sit up there and say, "You've lost your way." There has got to be a way to say, "Look, whatever role I can play is real small." First, we got to come to grips with that, but it does seem to me that children crave the kind of nourishment and attention that was far more automatic when I was a child.
BOND: Are you going to write another article like the one you wrote for the New York Times years ago to lay this problem out so that more people than will ever see this TV tape can read about it, learn about it, pass around, figure out strategies?
NORTON: I have been trying to think about how I should -- I feel so deeply about the subject that I should really write a book about it and I've been trying to think about how to write a book about it, and I may indeed do that. I just supported a bill here with a Republican -- a conservative Republican, Sam Brownback -- who is the committee that receives our appropriation -- money, by the way, that was raised entirely in the District of Columbia. I've known him for a long time, he's very conservative. But he's also a guy that I like and on some issues, we agree.
He's come forward with a notion about marriage development accounts in which 100 percent funded, voluntary accounts and where an engaged couple, a married couple, could save for a house or to further education, stuff like that, and the federal government would match it three-to-one. You know, I said to Sam, "Sam, I like the idea because you and I are operating on the same theory -- that at the bottom, at bottom, the reason for the decline in the black family started with economic factors, and you're trying to deal with it with economic factors. If it's voluntary, I'm for it."
I just gave some testimony and in the testimony, I lay out why I thought some people would regard with some suspicion a conservative Republican willing to talk about marriage in the District of Columbia, a largely black city, and then I lay out more of why I think this is appropriate. So I'm saying to myself, if I keep finding opportunity to talk about this as I am now, or to write about it as I did in this testimony -- because I didn't so much write about marriage development accounts, I wrote about the black men and the black family -- but I ought to sit down and not write my own autobiography, but write about this issue which I regard as the overriding issue facing our people today.
BOND: Let this be the beginning of it. Eleanor, thank you so much for being with us.
NORTON: My pleasure, Julian.
BOND: Thank you.
Transcript from http://blackleadership.virginia.edu/transcript/holmes-norton-eleanor.