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Armstrong Williams
Radio Show Host
A Conversation with Julian Bond From the "Explorations in Black Leadership" Series

Julian Bond: Armstrong Williams, welcome to “Explorations in Black Leadership”.

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 might mean?

Armstrong 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 I’m involved 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.

Julian Bond: Where did this idea come from in his family?  Why do you think he felt that way?

Armstrong 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 that time.

Julian 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? 

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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 could?

Armstrong Williams: Not only to slavery, but to…

Julian Bond: Native Americans. American Indians.

Armstrong 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.

Armstrong 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. ”

Julian 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?

Armstrong Williams: Well, my grandfather, my father’s father, Colier, parents had land.

Julian Bond: Where did their land come from?

Armstrong 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 land.

Julian 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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: You need to find out. This is a fascinating story. I’m telling you that you need to find out!

Armstrong Williams:  It's critical! I need to find out.

Julian 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 that that’s 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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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 from him?

Armstrong 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 ended slavery.

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.

Armstrong Williams: Well wait a minute. You are talking about the Freedman’s Bureau?

Julian 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 do it.

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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 your life?

Armstrong 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 I’d 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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: Well it’s really some kind of racism in both instances.

Armstrong Williams: Yes!

Julian Bond: So if the Dean says it to you and some white guy says it to you, it’s the same thing.

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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.

Julian Bond:  Who are the people who helped you become who you are today?

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong Williams: Well you know, it’s kind of interesting because…

Julian Bond: Let me interrupt you. Ministers particularly because what I found interesting about your family is that you went to different churches.

Armstrong Williams: Yes, that’s true.

Julian Bond: How did that come about?

Armstrong 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 zestful life…

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.

Julian 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?

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: It was never his thought to go to the holiness church. He would not…

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: Now let’s move forward to the time you meet Strom Thurman. You are relatively young.

Armstrong Williams: Sixteen.

Julian Bond: And your father takes you to a place where he’s speaking and what happens there?

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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 that right?

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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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?

Armstrong 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.

Armstrong 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 in? When 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 public office.

Julian 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?

Armstrong 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.

Julian 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 through life?

Armstrong Williams: You know for some reason, the Senator liked me. I have to tell you.

Julian Bond: You are a likeable guy.

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong 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.

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: I can’t imagine Strom Thurman and Barry White.

Armstrong 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.

Armstrong 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 be possible.

Julian Bond: (laughter) Let’s go on. How did you meet Clarence Thomas? Now Justice Thomas. How did you meet him?

Armstrong 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 I don’t 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 said, “but 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 freebasing cocaine.

Julian Bond: Umm. Hmm.

Armstrong 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 creative.”

Julian Bond: Well he never dreamed of that.

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: Weren’t you afraid that Richard Pryor was full of profanity. His routine was full of the worst kind of words.

Armstrong Williams: I was twenty-one.

Julian Bond: But you had heard of him…

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong 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)

Julian Bond: I just can’t believe this story. I never heard that about Richard Pryor.

Armstrong Williams: Oh that’s what happened. Yes.

Julian Bond: I wasn’t living in Washington when this happened.

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong 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?

Armstrong Williams: Bob Brown. That’s right.

Julian Bond: Now describe Bob Brown because many people watching this won’t know.

Armstrong 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.

Julian Bond: And that led to your association with Stedman?

Armstrong 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 Williams group.

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.

Armstrong 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 Thomas.

Julian 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?

Armstrong 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.

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