Phyllis Leffler’s cozy office is well off the beaten path, tucked under a stairway in Hotel F of the East Range. There, she toils quietly on a fascinating, but underappreciated, oral history series.
Filling one shelf, running the length of her office, is a succession of 35 stuffed loose-leaf notebooks, each marked with a name. Vernon Jordan. Benjamin Hooks. Carol Moseley Braun. Dick Gregory. Nikki Giovanni. Amiri Baraka. Over the seven-year span of the Explorations in Black Leadership project, Leffler, director of UVA’s Institute for Public History, has filled the notebooks with background and context, prepared for her collaborator, history professor Julian Bond. He pores over the notes, then goes before the cameras to interview the guests, seeking to extract the essence of their leadership. (Video clips and transcripts of all but the most recent interviews are available online at virginia.edu/publichistory/blackLeadership.html).
The institute pays nothing but their guests’ expenses, yet have attracted the familiar and the lesser-known from the ranks of black politicians, educators, activists and business leaders. The lure is Bond, a longtime civil rights activist and national chairman of the NAACP, who serves as the project’s interviewer and rainmaker.
“Really, if not for him, this project could not happen,” says Leffler. “It’s really the strength of his reputation and his contacts that make people want to do this.”
Bond brings to the interviews a list of standard questions, allowing viewers to compare and contrast responses about leadership styles and philosophies. But he also liberally exercises his freedom to depart from the script, and his familiarity and often shared history with his guests elicits revealing stories. “I think there are remarkable and deep connections that happen on camera,” Leffler says.
Both Leffler and Bond mention a recent interview with conservative columnist Armstrong Williams as being particularly powerful. “I’ve never known him to be so introspective as he was, and reflective about his own mistakes,” Bond says.
Williams once worked alongside Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; when Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, Williams served as his spokesman. And when Hill leveled accusations of sexual harassment at Thomas during his confirmation hearings, Williams came to his defense.
Leffler recalls, “Basically he said, on camera, in what must have been this moment of clear personal disclosure, that he didn’t care who was right and who was wrong. He just knew that he had to protect Clarence Thomas, and that meant destroying Anita Hill.
“What he said was he was really sorry because he had been working with her in that office, but he knew what he had to do, and he did it. And he regrets it.
“And Julian says, ‘Have you ever apologized to her?’ And he said, ‘No. I don’t even know where she is right now.’ And Julian said, ‘She wouldn’t be hard to find.’”
There are other memorable exchanges among the oral histories, including the only one where the interview was not conducted by Bond. That was when Bond himself sat for an interview, conducted by Leffler. In it, he recalls attending a Quaker school in Atlanta, where he was first impressed with the idea of aggressive but nonviolent resistance.
“It was impressive to me because you’d meet these people who were tax resistors, who wouldn’t pay their income tax because the monies were used for war. I thought, My Lord! How can you not pay your income tax? Everybody pays their income tax.
“They’d said, ‘No. I’m not doing it,’ and they’d go to jail. I thought, You’d go to jail voluntarily? How could you do that? Of course, I later did it myself. But at the time it was like, Whoa.”
Thus far, the project has attracted scant attention, but that may soon change. Leffler and Bond plan a book-and-DVD project over the summer and fall, seeking to put the interviews into an analytical framework. The Web site is slated for an overhaul. A doctoral student at the Curry School of Education, Whitney Naman, is designing a curriculum that will use the interviews, along with context and background, to teach leadership to high school students. “This is going to be a really great resource,” she says.
Both Leffler and Bond have a wish list of future guests, including Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice. Leffler says the project will go on as long as Bond is involved; Bond says he will continue as long as he is at UVA, but notes that he has already postponed retirement once and has made no commitment beyond the spring semester.