Bob Woodson Retires: Why He Left the Civil Rights Movement and the Search for His Successor
Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Bob Woodson, founder of The Woodson Center and 1776 Unites, to the newsmaker to discuss his recent announcement of retirement, why he left the Civil Rights movement behind, and what qualities he’s seeking in his successor.
Leahy: We are joined on the newsmaker line by our good friend, the great Civil Rights leader Bob Woodson. Bob, welcome to The Tenessee Star Report.
Woodson: I’m pleased to be here.
Leahy: First, congratulations on a fantastic career. You made news. Certainly, it’s well earned. But you made an announcement last week. You’re retiring after 40 years as head of the Woodson Center. What prompted you to make that decision?
Woodson: Well, age, first of all. And secondly, we want the organization to have a prosperous 40 more years. And therefore, succession is a key to that future. And so I want to prepare other young leaders to come in and take my place. We have a really deep bench, and we are excited about the future. I’m going to step aside. I feel like the adult kids, empty nesters. And you know, goodbye ain’t always gone.
Leahy: You’ve said something quite profound. I think maybe 30 years ago or perhaps even 40. You said, “I realized I was in the wrong struggle and the Civil Rights movement was beginning to morph into a race grievance industry.” When did that realization come to you, Bob Woodson?
Woodson: It came to me in the late 60s when we had picketed outside of a pharmaceutical company. When they desegregated, they hired nine Ph.D. chemists, and we asked them to join this movement. And they said they got their jobs because they were qualified, not because of the sacrifices of those on the picket line who were janitors, hairdressers, and ordinary folks.
I realized that, as Dr. King said, what good does it do to have the opportunity to participate if you don’t have the means and the where with all to do it? The Civil Rights movement never concerned itself with preparing poor people to take advantage of opportunities.
Instead, it concentrated on attracting resources to the middle class. And so I realized a bait switch game had been going on. We use the demographics of one segment of poor blacks as bait, and when the benefits arrive, it only helps those who are prepared.
And so I left the civil rights movement because it had morphed into a race grievance industry. And I began to work on behalf of low-income people of all races. The poverty programs came along and we spent $22 trillion, with 70 cents of that money didn’t go to the poor, it went to those who served the poor.
And so a lot of those Civil Rights leaders became Democratic officials running these cities. And they were the ones administering these poverty funds. So you have this huge classicism in the black community that no one talks about.
Leahy: That’s very interesting and quite a profound point. Last year, you started the 1776 Unites Project to push back against Critical Race Theory and the project – 1619 project in schools. Very divisive and very bad for America in my view. Tell us how that project has proceeded in the following year.
Woodson: Well, as I said, we pushed back. And since the radical left, I think, was using America’s birth defect of slavery and Jim Crow as a bludgeon against the country that got expressed in this 1619 Project.
Since they were using blacks as a messenger, we thought that the counter-voice should be black-led. And so I brought together a group of scholars and activists and journalists, and we produced a series of essays, about 28 of them with 1776 Unites.
And we were offering not a point-by-point debate, but a more inspirational and aspirational alternative narrative. In other words, the basic accusation is that many of the problems faced by low-income blacks in the crime areas and out-of-wedlock births are related to a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
That’s just a lie. And so in our essays, we talk about how, in the turn of the century, how blacks developed and built their own hotels and businesses and Wall Streets. They had $100 million dollars in real estate assets in 1929 in the city of Chicago and 731 businesses.
How schools were producing children who could read and write. And they closed the education gap between 1920 to 1940 within six months. We just were offering curriculum too so that school systems would have some counter-information and knowledge.
We have 15,000 downloads for our curriculum that celebrates America as really the country of opportunity, even for those who were enslaved.
Leahy: Now, let me ask you this, Bob. On what date will you officially be retired? Is it like, immediate?
Woodson: No, no, no. Nothing is going to happen tomorrow. We’re taking the rest of this year to search for my successor. In the meantime, the organization is prospering. We’re growing. I hope to name someone next year.
Leahy: Ah! So let me ask you this. In the search for your successor, what qualities are you looking for?
Woodson: I’m looking for someone of faith, someone who really loves and appreciates the richness of this country. We’re looking for people who are committed to looking at the strengths, the histories of resilience, people who understand. In other words, someone who is competent, loves this country, loves low-income people, and is forward-thinking, a visionary, and optimistic. Those are the qualities that we’re looking for.
Leahy: And how extensive will your search process be? And how many applications have you received so far to be your successor?
Woodson: We are not doing a national search as such. I mean, there are people who have been in this orbit walking with us over the past 30 years.
So we have a rich pool of people among those who we already know and had some experience with. The pool of people in this space are people already known to us.
Leahy: That makes sense.
Woodson: It’s just a matter of selecting which one will continue this message.
Leahy: When do you anticipate that process is likely to end? You’re staying in the gig full time until your successor is identified?
Woodson: Absolutely. I will be staying at the helm until my successor is named. I hope to when we identify someone who’ll work beside that person for a few months so we have an orderly transition.
But we will be making an announcement by the end of the year. We hope to be able to make an announcement and then perhaps a transition in the spring.
Leahy: Let’s say early January, your successor will be announced. You’ll work with that person for three months. And then April 1, when you officially retire, how’s your life going to be different?
Woodson: (Chuckles) Well, again, I’m going to step aside. I’ll be an ambassador. I hope to continue to lecture. I hope to teach and disciple my young leaders around the country as I do now. I hope to spend more time with my wife who has been very patient over these years.
I hope to just continue to offer a commentary. I want to continue to write a lecture and to disciple my young friends. But I want to step away from the daily administration. I want the organization to continue to move and to grow and allow new leadership to come in with new ideas as to how to expand our message.
So I’m looking forward to the next level of leadership and taking it to places that I never did. This organization is going to be around, and we’re going to be a fixture on the American scene, and we’re excited about the future. I’m just glad to be able to hand the baton to younger leadership.
Leahy: Bob Woodson, congratulations on a spectacular career and we look forward to having you back on the program. Thanks for joining us this morning.
Woodson: And thank you.
Listen to the full second hour here:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Robert Woodson” by Gage Skidmore CC By-SA 3.0.