Bond: Armstrong Williams, welcome to “Explorations in Black
Armstrong Williams: Thank you for inviting me.
Julian Bond: We are very pleased to have you here. I am going
to begin with some questions about the Brown decision. Now it
occurred five years before you were born, but what was the discussion,
if any, in your family or what was the feeling about what this
Williams: My parents had quite a different take on the government
and the issues of race. My father actually in his discussions
actually thought it was ridiculous that the highest court in
the land even had to come to the conclusion or discussion that
separate but equal was immoral. He always saw things in terms
of moral and immoral. And then had the discussion to make a
decision to try to make the facilities equal. And his attitude
was son you know, they can try for the next twenty or thirty
years to make the facilities equal, but the only way that
my children are going to have a quality education is that I
got to ensure that it happens. I have got to make sure that
with what happens before they ever enter kindergarten. By reading
to them, having them read to us, reading the newspaper, going
to the library. I will never trust the government to ever educate
my children or to make me believe that they are going to make
people equal. How are you going to have from human slavery to
de jure segregation and now this Brown versus Board and then
we are going to get into the Civil Rights Movement and how do
you think that we are going to be equal? You cannot legislate
the mentality of people when people thought in the beginning
that you are unequal and therefore you are not worthy to sit
next to their kid because that kid was white or something else.
As he discussed it, he discussed it in a different way. I’ve
got to make sure that my children are educated and have a better
chance at life than what I had.
Bond: Where did this idea come from in his family? Why
do you think he felt that way?
Williams: Well you know my father and mother had deeply held
Christian values. My father often talked about the stories
that were passed along to them about how people who considered
themselves to be God-fearing would go to church on Sunday, but
yet after church could have a picnic and cut up their brethren
into pieces and place them in a jar and have just left the alter
of God. How could anyone who claimed they believed in God, their
actions were just that of brutality? Something that goes against
all the teachings that they proclaimed to believe in and so his
attitude was that it’s going to be quite some time before
you can ever change the hearts of men who allowed a Constitution
in place that, in ideas and in principles, we were equal, but
they did not have the moral turpitude or the moral courage to
stand up and say we have to learn from the brutal dictatorships
of the past to make people have equal access. We don’t
have to give someone an advantage, but don’t give them
a disadvantage. So my father never had a whole lot of faith in
the government and a whole lot of faith with people who subscribed
to a certain faith and who had certain power. There was nothing
that would make him believe that they would do anything that
was good in the long run. He figured that long after he would
leave this earth that things would be better, but he did not
see it happening within the next thirty or forty years during
Bond: But at the same time when you write about the Brown decision
on the Fiftieth Anniversary year, you write that life was far
better for my brothers and sisters than when I came along.
How did your brothers and sisters, you’re from a family
of nine, how did they benefit, if at all, from the Brown decision?
Williams: Well separate but equal, the notion was that when
the decision was rendered was that you can no longer believe
that just because you are separate, that’s got
to make you equal. Many of these institutions were still unequal.
Unequal in terms of what they had access to, in terms of the
teachers, and even just in the rural part of the world that we
lived in. I mean we did not have access to the kind of tax base
as a lot of people who had a certain kind of affluency had. Obviously
my father thought it was a good thing that people were beginning
to understand what many of them had known for a long time - that
racism and discrimination and bigotry of any kind is a moral
sin and the stain of this country and that we all would have
to pay a price for the oppressor and the oppressed. I think my
father’s attitude was what he learned was that as the government
was giving all this rhetoric about making people equal what he
needed to do was to find a farm, find an institution where he
could raise his children, sort of like an incubator so that he
can influence their value system, their work ethic, their discipline,
their routine to teach them how to work, to teach them how to
fish as he was building his farm. You know my parents had a two
hundred fifty acre farm that they bought back during the 1940s.
That farm is still in the family today so my father felt the
best weapon to bigotry and discrimination would be being truly
free because my father grew up partly on a sharecropper’s
farm and he talked about the abuse, the humiliation. He told
the story about how his brother, I don’t know if you know
this, you may know this, you are well read and you certainly
have far more experience than most people on this issue. I remember
the story about his uncle who had worked on this man’s
farm and they only paid them once a year. Once a year was when
they were paid and he worked on this farm for a year and I had
a friend of mine recall this story for me recently and it reminded
me of something that my father said and at the end of the year,
the owner of the farm said we owe you about forty six dollars.
I mean it was just an outrage! I mean this man had worked. I
mean the blisters, the sores, for an entire year and for someone
to say that you were only owed less than a hundred dollars was
an insult. And from those lessons from my father watching his
brothers he said, you know I may have to endure that for some
time, but the children I bring into the world will never endure
that kind of humiliation and abuse because it can just destroy
their self-esteem. I never even realized that every opportunity
in America could possibly be their opportunity.
Bond: Before we began taping, we talked for just a moment and
you said that in your father’s family, you couldn’t
trace back to slavery, but in your mother’s family, you
Williams: Not only to slavery, but to…
Julian Bond: Native Americans. American Indians.
Williams: Yes, American Indians because my grandmother was
a full blood Cherokee Indian. So in my father’s side
of the family, they were very industrious. They were landowners.
They were entrepreneurs. They were farmers. His sister was a
seamstress. They were entrepreneurs and they were able to accumulate
masses of land that was never taken away from them in the family.
In fact, the land is still with my cousins today, but my father
broke away from that because he had a dispute with his brothers
and he decided that he would have to go out and secure his own
farm and it’s funny how he was able to do this. He told
this story often. There was this guy by the name of Mr. Buck
Davis and my father approached Mr. Davis and said, “Mr.
Davis. I don’t necessarily want to be in business with
my brothers. I want to have a family. I want to grow a farm.
I want to have an opportunity for them to experience freedom
and to build wealth and to possibly run for office someday and
they cannot do this working for the man.” And Mr. Davis
said, “James” – that was my father’s
name – “What can I do you for?” He said, “Well
Mr. Davis there is this plot of land over on Davis Lane. There
are about fifty acres that I can buy and it costs about eight
hundred dollars. Now if you loan me that eight hundred dollars
I promise you that in the year’s end from today, I will
pay you back your eight hundred dollars.” Because during
that time, as my father told the story, a black man could not
buy land so he had to get this white man to front for him. And
Mr. Davis said, “Well I appreciate what you are saying,
but I’m going to loan you the money” and so he loaned
my father the money. So my father assumed he was getting about
forty or fifty acres of land, but he was able to buy a hundred
acres of land with this eight hundred dollars during the time.
And the funny thing that my father tells me that happened in
the community was that black people were upset with him for buying
the land because they assumed that my father was trying to be
better than they were.
Julian Bond: He was getting ahead.
Williams: That’s right! And white people were
upset because they felt my father did not know his place and
this white man fronted for him and they would have never sold
my father this land because the land was owned by white owners
at the time. So my father’s attitude from that experience,
he said, “Son, don’t get caught up in the black way
of thinking and the white way of thinking. When people have power
and they have control over you, they are all the same. So don’t
think that only white people can be racist and discriminate and
abuse power. All people can do it. Just look all over the world
and you will see it. As time progresses, you will begin to understand
that people are the same world over. Never get caught up in judging
people based on their race or the hue of their skin. He said
all you do in life is extend your hand and say ‘Hi. My
name is Armstrong Williams.’ You judge a man based on how
he treats you, based on their character, and their values. Get
the trust in that way. ”
Bond: Now you talk about your father having broken away from
his brother who owned land and this long tradition of land
owning on his side of the family, now that’s not unusual,
but it is relatively rare. How did that come about?
Williams: Well, my grandfather, my father’s
father, Colier, parents had land.
Julian Bond: Where did their land come from?
Williams: Their land came from their parents. There were always…you
know it comes from a background where they were one of the
few free black families in the South that owned land, but
not only owned land, I am going to reveal this. They also had,
we wouldn’t call it slavery, but they would call them
indentured servants. They had people working on their farms
and they would say that they treated their indentured servants
far better than the man treated his slaves and so they were
able to pass this along and they were able to keep their
Bond: Every black person whose family can go back more than
a hundred and fifty years has some origins in slavery. When
they came here from Africa, they came as slaves. So there is
some point where your family achieved freedom. How did that happen?
Williams: You know, I really can’t answer that.
And you know we’ve researched it. We have done the family
lineage on that and we have been able to trace it very well on
my mother’s side, but on my father’s side, it’s
just a whole different story. And we’ve tried.
Bond: You need to find out. This is a fascinating story. I’m
telling you that you need to find out!
Williams: It's critical! I need to find out.
Bond: Let me get back to this. Now, it’s fifty-two
years after Brown and in the same article I quoted from before,
a column, you say, “Fifty years later we have not yet
gotten around to securing that these students actually receive
a equal education.” I think it is commonly understand
the truth. Why do you think that it is so? Why do you think that
fifty years after this historic decision that still we see unequal
education for people of different races in this country?
Williams: Again, it goes back to it was a noble idea. But it
was only an idea. They never put the resources. They never
put the instructors and they never did what was absolutely
necessary to make this work and then also, the Great Society
programs. There is often this debate about these social programs
that we put in place to sort of empower black people. To sort
of make up for their forty acres and a mule that was promised
to them, but I believe this. See I don’t trust the government
even though I love this country. Would die for this country
in its wars, would defend her to the end. I do not trust the
government. I don’t think that you can pass laws and
expect within a few days that people are going to do the
moral thing to make people equal. I think that even in affirmative
action. Affirmative action was something; it was reparations,
but I don’t think
the lawmakers had any intention of it benefiting black people
the most because if that were the case, they never would have
included white women. And we know about women’s suffrage
and we know about their fight in this country, but
never to the extent to what blacks endured in this country. I
mean you have to understand the founders because they knew that
slavery was so wrong, so ugly, and so bad, they had to put in
a worse counter form of slavery in order to justify it to those
that they broke away from in founding our nation. So they put
in one of the most repressive and horrific regimes ever seen
during that time knowing that it was wrong so they had to find
a way to justify it. We go back to this Brown decision and they
put this affirmative action in place to include white women and
then the other thing that happened even in the Great Society
programs, when they put these Great Society programs in place,
I mean I don’t know if
you remember this, but my parents would tell a story about how
in the late sixties and early seventies social workers would
go through a person’s home, look under the bed, look in
the bathroom to see whether there was any trace of a man in the
household. What they were doing then was forcing that household
to choose between that government check and having a man in the
house. People ask the question all the time – what happened
to the black family? Before the Civil Rights legislation was
ever passed Mr. Bond, around the 1950s in 1956 and 1957, seventy
eight percent of the black households had a mother and a father. I
would venture to say that these government programs that were
put in place displaced the father. And more than anything else
that has impacted the black family today is absentee fatherhood.
I cannot imagine my life without my father. As much as I love
my mother. I love her. I honor her. I have never talked back
to my mother in life. I could never imagine what I would have
become without my father in my life because my father taught
me discipline. He taught me how to work. He taught me self-respect.
He taught me real self-esteem. He taught me discipline. He would
spank my butt when I needed it and do it with a smile where I
even smiled sometimes after the whipping. But my father was a
man. He taught us how to be a man. See the problem today is that
men don’t know what it means to be a man. They don’t
know how to work. I mean it’s not that they don’t
want to work. It’s just that they just don’t know
how. No one ever taught them. No one was ever an example for
them to work and to fend for yourself and to survive for yourself
and to provide for your family. And what happens today because
there are so many absentee fathers and these mothers are embarrassed
and apologetic for it, they make these men soft. They give them
everything. They don’t earn it and then when they get out
into the larger society they’re just disastrous.
Bond: I can understand from what you said earlier about your
father’s attitude towards the government, but I’m
wondering if this was an attitude that his father had or if his
father before him had? Or do you think that this is something
that originated with his generation and you in turn, learned
Williams: NO! My parents, how could they trust the government
when the government allowed slavery? I mean you are talking
about a government that allowed one of the most immoral acts…
Julian Bond: Sure, but you could also argue that the government
Armstrong Williams: No, the conscience of the people. Good people
of all walks of life ended slavery. What happened was that a
sleeping giant was awakened when they saw these images of the
dogs being forced on people and the lynching and the stories.
And the stories of Goodman and others. It was the conscience
of the people that changed the government. If they had not awaken
at the sleeping giant, things would be just the same as they
are today. It takes the character and the moral fiber of a people
to change the government. No, I will not give the government
credit for that.
Julian Bond: But the government was the agency that ended segregation
and at an earlier period, ended slavery.
Williams: Well wait a minute. You are talking about the Freedman’s
Bond: No. The conscience of the people raised up an army run
by the government, Abraham Lincoln’s army, and that
ended slavery. I am not saying their conscience didn’t
Williams: Well Mr. Bond, I am also reminded what happened after
Reconstruction when blacks were elected to the Senate and to
the Congress and to the legislature and they were thriving.
And guess what, the conscience of the people who were still bloody
racist, envious, and jealous rose up and took that away and put
in a more repressive form of taking that away from them, the
Jim Crow laws. This is the same government. Oh yeah, the government
may have felt they needed to do the right thing, but when they
did the right thing, others used it as an excuse to say they
are taking away from us, we should have these seats. And they
found a way to take it back from them. This is the first time
in our history that we can honestly say that the people have
forced the government to do something for the long haul of this
country. I don’t think we can ever go back where the government
can take away the kind of freedoms and opportunities and the
portrait of life that we bring into this country. You know you
cannot trust... a government like that must earn your trust and
still I say a government with its form of slavery in a different
way. What it does through its social programs. The government
tells you don’t take care of yourself. We’ll take
care for you. You don’t need to think. You don’t
need to provide for yourself. We’ll give you welfare. We’ll
give you affirmative action. Well let me tell you something.
A government that’s big enough to give you everything is
big enough to take it away from you. That’s why I believe
in an entrepreneurial spirit and the spirit of freedom and your
own ideas. God bless the child that’s got their own.
Bond: I want to go back to Brown versus Board of Education
again. Now you go to an integrated elementary school, which
surely is one of the fruits of Brown. Then you go to South
Carolina State College, a historically black college. What
kind of values did you learn at these separate institutions?
The integrated school, the all-black South Carolina State College,
what did learn there? I don’t mean the reading, writing,
arithmetic. What did you learn at these places that has shaped
Williams: Well, that’s a very good question.
I’ve never been asked that before. It actually put my father’s
teachings in place that people are the same all over. You know
I have to tell you this; it’s no secret. I mean I say it
all the time because I think it’s crazy. I’ve never
experienced racism. Ever. Never been called the N-word. Never
been denied an opportunity because of what people say about the
hue of your skin. When I was in high school, I interacted with
people. I networked and we studied together so much so that they
elected me as class president. They elected me as student body
president by a landslide. I was able to build real relationships.
They would come to my home to study. I would go to their homes.
So my father’s vision for us early on, before I ever had
this experience, came to life. It came to life. Now of course,
there are bad people, but I had a wonderful experience because
my high school is probably 50-50. Fifty percent white, fifty
percent black, but all the things that we talked about, how people
said they were spat on and the kinds of things that were happening,
you were not invited to do this. My father says the greatest
weapon to breaking down any barrier is the human heart, how you
feel about yourself. And my father taught us to have a lot of
pride and a lot of self-confidence. Now, you flip that to my
college experience. It also goes to tell you what my father said
about just because someone looks like you doesn’t mean
they share your value system or they want what’s best for
you. I remember, I think this is a pretty good story. I remember
when I was in college, my parents and I reached a pact that as
long as I maintained a 3.3 grade point average, I would never
have to work a job on college campus and that they would pay
my college education out of their pockets. And fortunately my
parents paid cash money for my education for all four years,
but I did not maintain a 3.0. So I remember my rising junior
year in college, I had become pretty bored with academics. I
just got tired of studying. It was no longer fun so I said to
my father, I always had to negotiate with him, I said, “You
know we need to do something else here. I want to run for office.
I want to run for student body president. I want to make history.
I want to be the first rising junior to ever win student body
presidency at the school.” He said, “Boy you are
going to have a tough time.” He said, “You’re
a Republican.” He said, “You are about to have an
experience you never had,” I said “Oh no. I think
do well.” So I’ll never forget that when I announced
that I was going to run, one of the Deans, I am not going to
call his name, God bless his soul, he is no longer with us, called
me into his office and he said, “I hear you are thinking
about running for student body president.” I said, “Yep.
I am thinking about running. I talked to my parents about it.
They think it is a good idea.” He said, “Well
you know I am your friend and I have been your advisor since
you have been here and I think you are quite capable, but we
don’t think you should run.” I said, “Why
don’t you think I should run?” He said, “We
think you are a little too dark.”
Julian Bond: Oh really?
Williams: Yes! This is what this dude says to me. But see the
good thing about it is my father didn’t want
me to run in the first place and I said this guy… I could
not believe it. But you know at South Carolina State, you had
to submit a photo at a certain period to get into the University,
absolutely. The guy told me I was too dark! I said well you know
God, Daddy will get a kick out of this.”So I called my
father I said, “You will not believe what this dude said
to me – that
I was too dark to run for student body president.” He said, “You’ve
got to run! What did I tell you? That is ignorance.” So
my father financed the campaign. He came down and helped me campaign
and I won by sixty-four votes. So it’s just sort of the
reversal, but still. The majority of the kids voted me in. They
voted me in for a second term by a landslide and I still saw
the good there. But see it can come from anywhere. Now what if
someone white had said that to me? It would have been racism,
but my father’s attitude was it’s all the same. It’s
denying you an opportunity.
Bond: Well it’s really some kind of racism in both
Armstrong Williams: Yes!
Bond: So if the Dean says it to you and some white guy says
it to you, it’s the same thing.
Williams: So I guess it's racism. I guess we live in a society
today where blacks cannot be racist because they have no power.
I mean you can have power and you influence people. I mean
if I go to you for advice and I am asking you to give me the
best advice because you have my best interest at heart, why
would you give me advice that I am going to suffer from in
the long run? So yes, racism can take many forms. So yes I
guess that was racism.
Julian Bond: And the Dean had power?
Williams: Oh yes he had power, but he didn’t
have power over me because I wasn’t weak minded. I had
a father. What if I had not had a father? If I had just had a
mother in the household and I had no strong male figure in my
life, there’s no telling what could have turned out, but
that motivated me. I was excited and we won. And he apologized.
Julian Bond: Oh really? Well at least he was big enough to apologize.
Armstrong Williams: Yes. He did apologize.
Bond: This next question I think I know the answer to already
and that’s who are the people who have been most
significant in helping you develop your talents. Now you have
already talked about your parents and the influence they had
on you. What about other people, not parents? Other people – teachers,
ministers, community figures? Those kind of people. Long before
you meet Strom Thurman.
Armstrong Williams: Right.
are the people who helped you become who you are today?
Williams: Mr. Stevenson who was my history teacher who felt
I had potential and he really worked with me. Mrs. Crawford
who was my science teacher. I always thrived in the math and
the sciences in school. I always thrived, but they developed
me. Mr. Watson. You know I have never had a sports bone in my
body. I have never been athletic. I could never make it
like a lot of athletes today, but anyhow he made me manager of
the basketball team and I kept the score and it gave me an interesting
outlook about sports and about how life sort of mimics the basketball
court and the arena sports. I learned so much from that and then
Bill Jones. Bill Jones was over at 4H in my county and he got
me into livestock judging where I would judge swine and I would
judge cattle and he would get me to become a public speaker where
I got into debates and the debate forums around the state to
the point where I won the debate contest two years in a row as
a sophomore and as a junior in high school. And then my brother
Alvin followed and won the same. And so these people had a very
significant impact on my life. And the Hendersons. I mean I remember
when we were taking typing and short hand. I could never understand
why a man would want to take typing or shorthand. And he felt
I would thrive in it and I took typing and I won all the awards
in typing because I typed like a hundred and six words a minute
and so they developed me and my father always encouraged them
to come by. They’d fix a good meal for them, my mother
would fix a meal, and we would sit down and go around the table
because my parents dropped out of school when they were in the
sixth grade. So my parents would sit around the table and want
to learn too. They had a hunger for learning and they also felt
that I was being an example for my brothers and sisters to come
that learning can be fun. It can be exciting and so they made
learning fun in our household. When we were about to have a tutoring
session, everybody would gather around the table and just sit
and learn and everybody would take notes. It was like a game
in the house. Like some people had Nintendo, but learning math
problems or logarithms, English and all that kind of stuff was
very exciting in our household.
Julian Bond: What about outside the school setting? Where there
figures in the community that pushed you along some way or helped
you in some way?
Williams: Well you know, it’s kind of interesting
Julian Bond: Let me interrupt you. Ministers particularly because
what I found interesting about your family is that you went to
Williams: Yes, that’s true.
Julian Bond: How did that come about?
Williams: Well my mother is Pentecostal and my father is African
Methodist Episcopalia. And my mother tells the story. You see
my father was married twice. His first wife in giving birth
to the fourth child, died in childbirth and he was in need
of a wife because he had this young baby and he had these three
young kids. And so my mother had a very good reputation in the
community. She was twenty-nine years old, had never been married
and to hear her tell it, she never thought she would never be
married, AND she was a virgin. I didn’t think about that.
She was a virgin. Everybody knew about her reputation so my
father went to my grandfather, whose name I bear, Armstrong
Howell, and said, “You know
Mr. Armstrong my wife Theola just died. I’ve got this young
baby and I’m looking for a wife. I would love to marry
your daughter Thelma.” He never went to my mother because
that’s how it worked at the time. He went through my grandfather
and my grandfather told me the story. He said, “Well James,
you’ve got a pretty good reputation. You work hard. You
got that nice farm and you need help. I think Thelma would make
you a good wife. Let me talk to her.” So he talked to my
mother and my mother said yes so my mother came into the marriage
with already four kids to take care of, but one of the things
that she agreed on. This happened - his wife died on January
24, 1957 and he married my mother March 1st. They never really
knew each other. So he married my mother on March 1st, but the
one thing that my mother asked for though, the only thing that
she asked for is that she did not leave her poppa’s faith.
She is not going to join with those boring African Methodist
Episcopalian people and she is going to remain with New Life
Holiness Church and I am the only one of the ten kids that joined
with my mother so that’s where I get my excitement, my
Julian Bond: So all of the other kids went to the A.M.E. church?
Armstrong Williams: All of them! All of them of members of the
A.M.E. church, even today they are, but I went with my mother.
Bond: So you tell the story about the difference between yourself
and your siblings in your choice of church. Why did you go
this way and they didn’t?
Williams: Well my father to be candid with you, he actually
thought that the people that would shout and speak in tongue,
that they were kind of ignorant. He looked down on it and my
father had such a huge influence on all of us. We are much
more like our father than our mother, but I was talking to
my father and he said, “Boy you don’t want to
join that.” I said, “I think I’m going to join
momma’s church”, plus I like it better too! At his
church, I’d sleep all the time. You know even though church
was a big part of our upbringing, we went to church every Sunday,
it was not something that was indoctrinated. It was not everything.
It was not like we had to stay at church because at the holiness
church, the thing that my father did not like, you’d get
to church at eight o’clock in the morning and you would
not get home until three. At least with my father’s faith,
you’d get to church at eleven and you were out by one.
And that was a big deal. So my mother was in church all day,
which drove him crazy but that was her thing. So I said I am
going to join with momma and she was so happy that I joined her.
And I remain a member of her church today. That’s why I
joined, but one of the few times in my life I just decided with
my father that I was not going to follow his advice.
Julian Bond: Did this create any conflicts between yourself
and your brothers and sisters?
Williams: Oh no, no, no! And my father liked the fact that
I was willing to step out on it. He said, “Boy after
all it is your momma. So how can I get upset with you?
It is your momma." So it was okay and we had that conversation.
Bond: It was never his thought to go to the holiness church.
He would not…
Williams: No, would never. But he never tried to tell us even
though he would tell us in the end it was our choice.
My brothers and sisters felt the same way. They just could not
get into the speaking tongues and people falling out all over
the church and being covered in towels. It was just too much
for them. But I said I am going to join my momma and so he gave
me a pass on that.
Bond: Now let’s move forward to the time you meet
Strom Thurman. You are relatively young.
Armstrong Williams: Sixteen.
Bond: And your father takes you to a place where he’s
speaking and what happens there?
Williams: Well my father had read in the paper that Strom Thurman
was speaking. My father wanted us to be Governor and Senators.
His attitude was that he was going to make a lot of money and
we did not struggle. We grew up in an affluent family. I thank
God for that. Did not have to struggle. And he said let me
take care of making the money and you all need to be elected
officials because he said the only way you change the government
is you have people like you who’s unwilling to punish people
for the way they punished us in the past. Judging us by the hue
of our skin. He said you’ve got to be fair. Justice has
to be fair. Everybody feels they have to get the fair treatment
and my father felt that he was raising fair, compassionate children.
So my father said Strom Thurman is going to be here. I think
he is the guy that can take you to Washington. He always wanted
me to go to Washington, my father. I always listened.
Bond: Let me stop you there. I know you said you get your entrepreneurial
spirit from your father, but what you are describing to me
now seems to me that he is saying the entrepreneurial spirit
is great. Making money, that’s great, but that’s
something I’m going to do so that your generation doesn’t
have to do it and you instead can go into public service. Is
Armstrong Williams: Oh he never thought I would be in business.
He never thought I would be an entrepreneur. That was something
that was never encouraged in our household. It was to get the
best education, background for office, and make the government
and the state better.
Julian Bond: What about your siblings? Any of them people you
would call entrepreneurs?
Armstrong Williams: The majority of them are. Yes.
Julian Bond: So what about public service?
Williams: I have a brother who is a state Senator. I also have
a brother who runs a political action committee. But we were
sort of…you know politics…it’s interesting.
We grew up and my father would have these fundraisers for these
politicians who were running for office. We’d have to grab
hands and shake. We had to be at the reception and it was good
for business for him. When there was a problem with the farm,
he could always call Farm Bureau. Always call the Governor’s
office and they always responded. My father was a Republican
and so I actually thought I was going to go and become a politician.
Julian Bond: For most of your life, your father is a Republican
in a Democratic state.
Armstrong Williams: Yes.
Bond: And he is Republican at a time when most Democrats are
saying, these people – there are only a tiny bit of
them. They are not doing anything. They are no threat to us.
They are not going to take over anything. How did he operate
in that situation? Why did he have this access to the government?
Why would the Governor pay any attention to a black Republican?
Williams: Well he gave money to politicians. That’s
where I get it from. He would support them. He felt money could
do just about anything. He said money is good, but he said if
the farm life continues, he felt we would be taken care of. But
he actually thought that politicians were for rent. And there
was nothing about principle and he didn’t want us to become
that, but certainly you had this guy and he was an anomaly. Here
he is a Republican. He has one of the finest farms in the state.
Seriously. He built one of the finest farms in the state. It’s
a great place for entertaining, which we continue the tradition
until today. We have Governors. We have people like Steve Forbes.
We have everybody who is anybody come there for a fundraiser
because of the way it’s laid out; the way it is built.
And so my father when he saw this about Strom Thurman, he wanted
for some time for me to meet the Senator. So we are in the middle
of our tobacco crop. He said, “Boy, get the black gum off
your hands and take a shower because we are about to go see Strom.” So
we get there and we got there just when Senator Thurman was leaving
and we walked in. Some of the people recognized my father because
he had a strong reputation in the county and just before he was
about to be introduced to Strom Thurman, I extended my hand and
I said, “Hello Senator. I am Armstrong Williams and I hear
you are a racist.”
Julian Bond: (laughter) And what did Thurman say?
Armstrong Williams: No, what did my father say? Forget about
what Thurman said! I thought my father was going to slap me actually
while we were in public.
Julian Bond: Yeah.
Williams: Can you imagine my chocolate hued father red? He
was furious because he had worked so hard to make this happen.
So Thurman chuckled and told my father not to worry about it. “At
least he’s honest. I am sure you raised him
that way.” So my father sort of cooled out and my father
said, “Son make sure you exchange numbers because Senator,
I want him to work for you one day.” He said, “A
lot of people say these things about you, but I told my son you
get to know people before you judge them. And I want my boy to
get to know you and I have plans for him and I know you can help
him.” So my father was really doing all the talking. I
will still sitting back there afraid to say anything else because
I didn’t want to get on his bad side anymore. So then we
exchanged cards and the Senator said to me, “You sound
like a bright young man.” He said, "What grade are you
you graduate from high school, if you are willing to come to
Washington to intern for me, come work for me. Why don’t
you decide if I am a racist or not.” So he issued me a
challenge. So it was like it went straight over my head. I had
no interest in following up with Senator Thurman. So my father
stayed on me and sure enough, I would write him and he would
always write back. And he would call every now and then. And
so what happened was I entered college and at the end of my freshman
year, I started thinking about my father’s tobacco fields
and cropping tobacco and I said, you know what? I have got to
find something else to do other than working on that tobacco
field during the summer so I said to my father, “I am kind
of trying to get some other experiences during the summer to
expand my portfolio.” He
said, “Boy you need to follow up with Strom Thurman and
go work with him.” He said, “I have been telling
you this because if not, I am going to put your 'A' back in this
tobacco field.” That’s the way my father talked.
So sure enough I did not want to work in the tobacco field that
summer so I called Senator Thurman. I will never forget it. He
called me back the next day and he said, “You know I have
been thinking about you. I have gotten your notes periodically.” I
said, ”I want to take you up on your challenge. I want
to come intern for you to see what Washington is like” and
I will tell you this – I will never forget this. When I
came to Washington, I went to the Capitol and it was at night.
And I looked over the Capitol and I had this feeling. You know
this was my first time out of the state of South Carolina. All
I had known was rural South, outhouses, not our own. Just a whole
different world and when I saw that I said, “Oh my God.” I
began to see my father’s vision and I fell in love with
another way of life that I felt that I could really thrive at
so I started working for him and I worked for him almost every
summer and that began the relationship. And I have to thank my
father because he had vision, but the difference was, unlike
some people today, I trusted my parents more than I trusted myself.
I knew that my father and he is crazy sometimes would absolutely
not give me advice unless he had my best interest at heart. And
even though he was not educated like some parents, I knew my
father loved me and I knew my father had a strong inter-spirit
about what we were capable of doing and he encouraged that. And
so that started me to actually believing that I could run for
Bond: Isn’t there an anomaly between your description
of your father as someone who does not trust the government and
is suspicious of the government and then someone who sends you
to, in effect, work for the government and become a part of it
and whose aspiration is that you WILL become part of the government?
Williams: The interesting thing about daddy is that he felt
that the government would change and that it would be better.
Maybe not during his time, but in the time when his children
would come along that the government would be ready for someone
like us to affect change. Realizing that it would always be
imperfect. The government is representative of its people.
In order for the government to do better, you’ve got
to have good people to run for office with strong values and
a different way of looking at life. So his distrust in the
government, true that existed, but he never lost faith that
the government could change much later down the road and be
better as more and more people were allowed to participate
in that system of government.
Bond: Now when I think back about Strom Thurman, one of the
things I that I remember about him was that he had a reputation,
as you’ve discussed, for being very close to his constituents.
Constituent service like nobody’s business. That of all
the Senators, if you want someone to return your call or write
you a letter back, Strom Thurman was the guy. What did you do
when you interned these summers and what did you pick up from
him or did you pick up things from him that you have carried
Armstrong Williams: You know for some reason, the Senator liked
me. I have to tell you.
Julian Bond: You are a likeable guy.
Williams: No, no. It’s much more than that.
In the evenings he would ask me to stay late and he would share
with me letters from constituency. He would share with me how
legislation worked in the Congress. He would take me over privately
to Capitol Hill to the Congress, to the Senate and show to me
how the different bodies, the majority leader and how all the
interactions of the Congress worked. He would show me how a bill
was put together.
Julian Bond: Did he treat his other interns this way?
Williams: No he did not. And they really couldn’t
understand it. It was different. I cannot explain it. My mother
said it was her prayers, but I was in class. I was with the historian
all the time. And during Thanksgiving when I really started working
with him, when I could not come home, even when I had a job in
Washington, Thanksgiving, it was always if I was in town, he
would bring me over to his office just before Thanksgiving and
let me see all the things that are going on, things that he is
involved in, be it the press versus what the reality of it
is. And I will never forget. I have to tell you something.
I really respected Strom Thurman. I must tell you more than
anybody else. More than Justice Thomas, Strom Thurman has had
more of an impact on my life than anybody. I will tell you
why – because
he was very kind to me. And he was very sincere and he is very
honorable. He said, “You
know I was racist. Let’s be clear. I was a segregationalist.” He
said, “But I had to be. I fought against the poll tax.
I did what I could. You must consider the times. But it’s
men like you, like your father said who must change those times."
He said, “Your father is a good man. I have a lot of respect
for him. And I have a lot of respect for how he is raising you
because you are inquisitive. I like the fact that you asked me
whether I was a racist because most kids don’t have the
confidence to ask a Senator something like that. You didn’t
ask me that to insult me. You were inquisitive as to what you
were getting into.” And listen, I got a lot of hits for
my association with Strom Thurman.
Julian Bond: I am sure.
Williams: You have no idea. Especially at South Carolina State,
but I liked this guy. He taught me about how important it is
to have a Senator in Washington. He said everything in Washington
has to do with whether you are close to the President, the
Speaker of the House, or some Senator, or some Secretary of
a Cabinet. He said, “I am going to be the person you
are close to.” And I will never forget I used to tell people
when I first came to Washington that I was close to Strom Thurman
because everybody saw him as a racist and they laughed at me
and thought I was a joke. It was very hurting and I remember
I would call my father and he would say, "Ask the Senator to
do something to change that." Such a simple thing. I
never thought about it so I went to see the Senator and I said,
no one believes that I am your boy. I didn’t say
it like that. I said, "Nobody believes it; you have got to help
me out." He said, "Well what should we do?" I said, "Well maybe
I will have a party and invite all these naysayers and you come"
and so he said, "Well you only have a one-room apartment that’s
infested with roaches." I said, "Yeah, but that’s
all I have and I’d
like for you to come." He said, "Set it up and I will come. And
so you have to brief me on what to say." At that time, Barry
White had this song out “It’s time for change, everything
must change.” So the Senator, I would go into his
office going over all of the words to make sure he knew the
words to the song.
Bond: I can’t imagine Strom Thurman and Barry White.
Williams: But anyhow, so I put together this little invitation
where I said I want you to come to my place and meet my very
special guest, my mentor and hero, Senator Strom Thurman. And
so Senator Thurman said, "You know they are not going to believe
you so I am going to give the impression that I am not going
to show up and you will see the real image of people, but you
just call me and I am going to be downstairs" because he was
right around the corner. So sure enough Dr. Bond, my little
apartment was packed. There must have been a hundred and seventy-five
people all the way around to the elevator. And you knew when
Strom got off the elevator because people started hollering
and screaming. It was like a rock concert. So he comes in and
he was old then. He was in his seventies then so he comes in
and he said, “This
boy is like a son to me. When I came over here, I heard Barry
White on the radio." He said, "Barry White was singing, ‘It’s
time for a change.’ ” People were weeping.
Julian Bond: Fell out.
Williams: Fell out! And that was it. That’s
what changed my status in Washington was that I had a Senator
and he stayed with me and he supported me on all the things that
he felt that would advance me in the city. So I am definitely
strongly indebted to him, but my father even a deeper gratitude
who had the vision and the foresight to believe that this could
Bond: (laughter) Let’s go on. How did you meet
Clarence Thomas? Now Justice Thomas. How did you meet him?
Williams: Now that’s an interesting story. Senator
Thurman got me a job at the Department of Agriculture in Animal,
Plant, and Health Inspection Services where I was in my area,
agriculture, which I understand very well. But they did not
know what to do with me. The Secretary of Agriculture at the
time was John Block. And John Block said, why don’t you
put together this Black History Month program for the department.
I said, “Oh
want to be involved in no race issues or minority issues. My
father told me to stay away from that because you are going to
put me in a box.” And I mentioned it to Senator Thurman.
He said, "Maybe it’s a good opportunity for you."
He said, “You
can always shy away from race issues. Don’t be afraid of
that because it is a part of America’s fabric.” He
you know, embrace it and come up with some ideas because they
may be able to learn some things about you.” So I was
reading the newspapers and I saw where Richard Pryor had been
Julian Bond: Umm. Hmm.
Williams: I had contacts to Richard Pryor. Nobody. And I
said wouldn't it be interesting is if I could convince Richard
Pryor to come to Washington to give a straight speech for Black
History month? I said Ronald Reagan is getting beat up for
his record and Richard Pryor is getting whipped for his drug
problem. I made about sixty some calls and finally this guy
by the name of Terry Giles called me back and was the lawyer
was Richard Pryor. I told him I was this big wig in the administration.
I worked for Senator Thurman. If I needed to get Senator Thurman
on the phone, I could. And we’re interested in bringing
Richard Pryor to Washington. We’d take care of all of
his travel. None of this had been confirmed by the way. And
we’d like to have him come and
sure enough two weeks later he called me back and said Richard
Pryor will do it. Oh my God. I went running to Senator Thurman
and I said, “You’ve got to support me on this.” He
said, “Well this is going to be a problem because people
are going to see this further shows people that Ronald
Reagan has no concern for black people because he’s bringing
Richard Pryor who he is a comedian who is not serious and he
freebases cocaine.” He
said you are going to have a problem with them. I said, “You
have got to trust me, I can make this work. You asked me to be
Julian Bond: Well he never dreamed of that.
Williams: Oh no, he had never dreamed of it. But sure enough,
but I said there is one problem that they insisted that Richard
Pryor was willing to come if President Reagan would host a
reception for him at the White House. So Senator Thurman called
Reagan himself and said, “I
know you are going to get a lot of flack on this, but trust
this young man. It’s going to work out.” And sure
enough when I presented it to the department that Richard Pryor
was coming, they flipped, but he had already been cast. The
White House knew. Strom Thurman gave his insurance. But I will
never forget that Senator Thurman called me into his office
and we went out to lunch at a grill. He said I want to tell
you something. "You are becoming like a son to me." I will
never forget this. He said, "But I have got to tell you this.
If Richard Pryor embarrasses the President, you are out of
here and you will not be welcome back to this city for a long
time." I said, "Senator I am willing to take a chance." But
I was naïve.
I didn’t know
the fallout that could come as a result of this. Again, I just
wanted to make it happen.
Bond: Weren’t you afraid that Richard Pryor was
full of profanity. His routine was full of the worst kind of
Armstrong Williams: I was twenty-one.
Bond: But you had heard of him…
Williams: Yes, yes, yes. But it didn’t matter.
I wanted him there and when you want someone to do something,
you forget about everything else. You are blinded. You have all
these blinders on. I’ll never forget when Richard Pryor
got off the airplane, he was stunned that I was so young. We
got in the car and I said, "Look man. Let me just tell you this.
I have a lot of the line. You cannot be up there cursing and
you got to give a straight speech and I got to help you write
it because there are a lot of naysayers." So Richard Pryor said,
"We considered those things." He said, "I appreciate you inviting
me, but I am glad to see you are a brother." He said, "I didn’t
think you was a brother. A brother got this kind of power? You
close to Strom Thurman?" And so the first night Strom Thurman
hosted a dinner for us. We went back to Richard Pryor’s
room and I have to tell this story. I’ll never forget.
Jesse Jackson called Richard Pryor and said, “Don’t
do it. Do not give your credibility to this administration.” Mrs.
King called, “Don’t do it.” Oh, I was in the
room. Richard Pryor said. "All my life I’ve never
given a straight speech for Dr. King. You all have never asked
me to do anything and here it is this young brother invites me
to Washington to give a speech and you’re telling me not
to show up." He said, "well you know what? I am going to show
up and you will just have to live with it!" And so the next day
at the Department of Agriculture, Richard Pryor spoke.
Julian Bond: What did he say?
Williams: Oh man. You should see the headlines. You can go
back and trace this. The Washington Post said he gave the best
speech in his life. The only straight speech in his life. Talked
about King. Talked about the only march that he had been a
part of and it was a Poor People’s March.
And I’ll never forget this, as soon as the program was
over, they were calling me Strom Thurman because we had people
in the audience saying the President will be honored to see Richard
Pryor tomorrow. An on the very next day, President Reagan had
a reception to honor Richard Pryor. Over two hundred fifty people
including all the Civil Rights leaders were there and I will
never forget when Ronald Reagan and someone from California grabbed
each other and they both cried in each other’s arms. That
was the picture that captured it and on that Monday morning,
this woman called me. Her name was Diane. She said, "I am calling
for Chairman Thomas of the EEOC. He wants to see you, but he
wants to speak with you first." He said, “Man I read
about you bringing Richard Pryor." He said, "That is a heck of
a thing to do.” He said, “Man you’ve got this
place in shock.” He said, “Man these people don’t
know what to do with you at the Department of Agriculture. You
should come work for me and let me develop you.” And I
went by on that Monday for an interview and I started working
for him on that Wednesday. That’s how I met Thomas. (laughter)
Bond: I just can’t believe this story. I never
heard that about Richard Pryor.
Williams: Oh that’s what happened. Yes.
Bond: I wasn’t living in Washington when this happened.
Williams: That’s why Richard Pryor came to Washington.
He spoke at the Department of Agriculture for Black History Month
and they asked him in interviews why did you come and he said,
"Because the agriculture employee Armstrong Williams asked me
to and he promised me a reception with the President and I got
that." And Richard and I remained friends until his death.
Julian Bond: Really?
Williams: Yes. In fact, it was he who introduced me to Hollywood.
Absolutely. He would bring me out to California. That is how
I met people like Barry White, Jamal Woods, because I started
bringing them in for different functions, but he opened me
up to a whole different world. That’s how I got access
to Hollywood, was through Richard Pryor.
Julian Bond: I never knew that. You know, I made a movie with
him and I never heard this, but this is not about me. Alright.
So you get with Thomas and you work with him for a number of
years. What was that like?
Armstrong Williams: Hard!
Julian Bond: Why was it hard?
Williams: He was a tough taskmaster. He was something to work
for. Reminded me of my father in many ways. You cannot show
up to work a minute late. It was like it was a hard place to
survive. But my work ethic and my father and my background
had prepared me for him and he was different. He was very different.
Very bright, but he was not necessarily the warmest person that
you could really warm too. You had to earn your trust with him.
And I started out as his Press Secretary and ended up writing
speeches for him, but once I earned his trust, I traveled with
him eighty percent of the time. We bonded and so that was a phenomenal
part of my life because I learned a lot about the inner-workings
of government. In fact, I had Senator Thurman to swear him in
and he was able to get a lot done. Thurman sort of became like
the champion for EEOC on a lot of the things that they were
trying to do. It was four years, four enjoyable years that I
stayed there with him until my father became ill and I brought
my father to D.C. in ’85 because I didn’t want that
burden on my mother to take care of him. He had bone cancer because
my father had just attended Ronald Reagan’s inauguration
in that January because he was so thrilled that Reagan won and
so we celebrated. I rented a limousine and all that. I was showing
out. I wanted my father to feel I was big time. Strom Thurman
hosted a dinner party for us, but later that year he became ill
and I was so devastated by his death. I was just so devastated
that I told the Justice I needed a break from D.C., but the Justice
was kind to me during that period because my father was in the
hospital for about four months and I probably saw EEOC for three
days out of those four months. I was always by his bedside taking
care of him and when he died, I moved to High Point, North Carolina
to start a different life.
Julian Bond: To work for Bob Brown?
Williams: Bob Brown. That’s right.
Bond: Now describe Bob Brown because many people watching this
Williams: Bob Brown was the person that Ronald Reagan wanted
as Ambassador to South Africa before Edward Perkins became
the Ambassador. But Mr. Brown decided against it. Mr. Brown
worked in the Nixon administration. He and Art Fletcher built
the minority set aside programs. They are the ones who put
the new version of affirmative action in place and minority
business enterprise. Bob Brown is one of the most revered Republicans
in this country. He built a successful international public
relations firm and I don’t know if you remember, Mr.
Brown was the first American to visit Nelson Mandela and Mr.
Mandela asked him could he find a way to finance his children’s
education here in the United States and Mr. Brown was able
to get them scholarships through Dr. Silver, who was at the
time, President of Boston University and they came here under
his stewardship and he took care of them. And so he was very
involved with the Mandela family and one of my assignments
when I was with Mr. Brown, I became Vice-President of Government
and International Affairs. I spent a lot of time in South Africa
with Winnie Mandela. With the movement. I spent a lot of times
going back and forth with his adult daughter and the grandkids
back and forth to South Africa. This is where I first traveled
internationally was with Mr. Brown so it opened up my world
up to international travel. I had a very good relationship
with Mrs. Mandela and when Mr. Mandela was freed, I think it
was 1990 or 1991, he personally asked me would I work in their
office to respond to all the letters that were coming in. And
I remember the letters from Edward Kennedy. I was typing and
writing all those letters and they were signing them and it may
surprise people that I had that experience, but it was wonderful.
I will never forget the first interview that Mr. Mandela gave
after coming out was with him and Winnie and I had to interview
and I remember people like Chris Wallace and others would could
not get in because they were the wrong color to be honest with
you, and I gave them my blessings and Mr. Mandela allowed them
to interview so it was a fascinating time. I was there
for about a month after he was released.
Julian Bond: Now back to Bob Brown. Is it fair to say that the
experience with Bob Brown introduces you to public relations
as a profession?
Armstrong Williams: Yes it does.
Bond: And that led to your association with Stedman?
Williams: Well what happened was Oprah was looking for something
for Stedman. Her man needed credibility. Not that he’s
just her beau and so Dr. Maya Angelou and Oprah are best friends.
Well Dr. Angelou is like her mother so at High Point, Oprah
came to High Point at Winston-Salem because Dr. Angelou felt
she had the perfect situation for Stedman because Oprah wanted
him in a situation where he would not be exploited, which would
further exploit her. Put in an environment where he could learn
and grow and develop as a professional. So they had this dinner
and it worked out where Stedman would come and work for B & C
Associates. I was on board a few months before Stedman so Stedman
came on board as Vice-President of Business Development and
that’s how we met and we both learned the field of
public relations. The field of marketing. Crisis management.
Crisis public relations. In fact, every time that I was in
South Africa, Stedman was with us and it was because of this
relationship that Oprah set up the feeding program in South
Africa and is building this academy in South Africa. All this
came from this relationship with Mr. Brown and then I ended
up running Oprah’s
Foundation. There is the Oprah Foundation, charitable givings.
I was the first executive director and I ran her foundation
for little over a year. Giving away money. Working with different
philanthropic organizations and so Stedman and I decided in
late 1989 and 1990, that we should use the skills and gifts
that we learned from Mr. Brown to start our own public relations
firm so we went into business together and founded the Grahams
Julian Bond: Very quickly because I want to get into some other
kinds of questions, the Thomas Supreme Court nomination is a
point in which you become publicly known because of your support
of him and your appearances on TV and in the media.
Williams: Well we worked together. We were all in the EEOC.
And so when Thomas was nominated by Bush to the Supreme Court,
we handled much of his public relations and advising him and
so when Thomas eventually was elected to Supreme Court, because
I think he was elected and not appointed, you know, the victor
gets all the benefits, but those who supported him get some benefits
too so I started writing for USA Today. Kathy Hughes offered
me a radio show, which was twice and five days a week.
And that’s how I came to the attention of the public was
through those hearings and being there for my mentor Justice
Bond: Now I don’t think of you Armstrong as a journalist
because I think of a journalist as someone writing for the daily
press who is reporting news. I think of you as a commentator.
How do you think of yourself?
Williams: (laughter) Well after No Child Left Behind, you would
think I was a journalist. You know, I have no professional
training as a journalist. I did not go to school for journalism.
It wasn’t until Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court
that I became a commentator. Writing commentary and doing radio.
I’m a commentator. I really am not a journalist.