The late Reverend William Augustus Jones of Bethany Baptist Church had a favorite saying: “You eat the king’s meat, you do the king’s bidding.” Looking at the influence of hedge fund money in this past primary, where folks were eager to belly-up to the king’s buffet, rationalizing that the king’s bidding was best for the peasants and knowing for certain it was best for themselves, we thought we’d look at a different path to elected office.Previous generations had come into office buoyed by the community and standing against the king. Councilman Al Vann’s 35 years of elected service began in such a way and we asked him how that path began.
OTP: A lot of people run for office and there will be a lot of them running for your office. What were the kinds of preparations you had and what had you done prior to being elected that prepared you for leadership? Councilman Al Vann: Actually, I’ve thought about my life, and as a kid growing up in Bed-Stuy, you know I was born and bred in Bed-Stuy went to PS.83 and Junior High School 35 before I went to Lane (Franklin K. Lane) and I didn’t realize the importance of it at the time, but when I was in public school I was always involved: on the stage doing stuff, head of the guard patrol in the school, I was president of the GO. I was very, very active in the school and the community and it wasn’t anything I thought special, it was just what I was doing at where I was. After I graduated from college, my first real job was teaching, I taught at 256 then Junior High School 35 where I spent most of my years before the infamous 271 when I was principal over there, the year they was having the big problem with the union. Ocean Hill-Brownsville. So that was what I was doing. I was involved and we were organizing teachers into the Negro Teacher Association in 1964. So it’s not really being a teacher I think that led me to this but the organizing of teachers, organizing parents actually. Holding workshops for them on the weekends, letting them know this school belongs to you, your children are there. You have the right to come in and make decisions and so forth. A lot of people probably can’t appreciate that time because they think the way things are now is the way they were. They weren’t like that. Parents were afraid to come to the school. They felt they had no say. Obviously, it was a time when there was no Black curriculum and very few Black people. The point I’m making is that I was organized doing things that led me to politics; I didn’t plan a career in being elected to office at all. Obviously, I didn’t know a lot about politics except my mother said that I should vote and I would vote. I would look for names that looked Black and that’s who I would vote for because I really wasn’t involved in it. But in 1972, it was more like a movement than a campaign because in ’72 we were still part of the movement and so I ran against Cal Williams because people said “we understand what you’re trying to do Vann, trying to make decisions, trying to improve the community, you could probably do it better if you’re in elected office. You have access to the media, you have access to resources.” I listened and decided that okay, I would do that. So in ’72, we did not run in the primary. We ran in the general election and again my movement was teachers and the community. We were the Vanguard Independent Party and we had petitioned just like the Freedom Party today. It was a grassroots movement and we did well. Didn’t win but we got a couple of thousand votes. People who were knowledgeable about the subject said, “Man, you’ve got to run in the primary. If you got 2,000 votes in the general election, you can win the primary.” The second time around in ’74, I ran in the Democratic Primary and I won and that was the beginning of my career in elected office. We learned everything on our own. There was no one that mentored us. No one told us what to do so we had to learn by doing. So my people learned all the aspects of running a campaign, so on and so forth and I guess the rest is history.
OTP: There’s so many folks that want to run and I don’t get the impression that a lot of them are prepared as far as doing the community background work. The African-American Teachers Association, how involved was the group in the community? Vann: Well, ATA (African-American Teachers Association), which really began in 1964 as the Negro Teachers Association, actually started between the teachers in 35 and PS 21 and then expanded. Eventually, we had a chapter in each borough except Staten Island. We had a coordinator of African-American teachers in each borough except for Manhattan, so we became citywide and we became (I think) the primary force dealing with the UFT (United Federation of Teachers). It was the ATA members who transferred into Ocean Hill-Brownsville, when that struggle occurred in 1968. So we took on the UFT and fought a lot of battles and had a strong voice. I was also involved with Youth-In-Action. I was on the first board of Bed-Stuy Restoration.
OTP: This was based on your teaching and work?Vann: Based on being involved in the African-American Teachers Association, teaching was a base I guess and then organizing teachers and parents was an aspect of the teaching and went beyond the classroom and school and into the community. The parents had to be orientated and told what was going on and so that put me out there in the community, but I still wasn’t thinking political or making it in elected office. It took others who had to say “maybe you would want to consider that.” So it was involvement in the community that evolved to a point, as opposed to now people saying they want to be in office for whatever reason and some of them good and some may not be. And then they do what they got to do: put up some flyers and raise some money to put it out there. And then people have to decide if they’re worthy or not. I don’t expect everybody’s preparation to be mine. But I think that the community has to look for people who have the community feeling. If you’re not trying to do something for the community before you get elected, you mean you’re going to start trying after you get elected? There’s no history there.
OTP: How is the community changed when you first came into office there was a wave African-Americans in office. How has the community change throughout the years?I think you mentioned when I came in, that really was the beginning of the political movement. We had gone through the Black Power Movement in the sense of Black consciousness: we were identifying ourselves as African-Americans now and Buy Black was occurring and then the next stage of that was the quest for political power. We didn’t have a lot of Black elected officials and the coalition for community empowerment. We were the group that began to elect Blacks around the borough. Roger Green, Clarence Norman, Thomas Boyland, Velmanette Montgomery, so it goes on and on from there. So it was an explosion and it was a continuation of a movement, not just running campaigns. That was the generation we were a part of and from that, because of that I was in position, when I was in the Assembly, I chaired the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Where we had an opportunity to sue the city and the state and able to create a lot more power seats for our people with two congressional districts, we increased the number of city council districts. This is power. We created political districts for our people that were not there before. So all those seats of power came about from the movement that I and others led. And it was not just me, Major Owens obviously played a key role and we moved from there. So that’s what happened. Now where are we today? Probably a lot is taken for granted and obviously there is not that same sense of urgency now, people are used to having Black elected officials. I’m not sure we were as critical of our own elected officials as we should be. We tend not to have, even in my younger days the Black community never had a way of judging and/or keeping the elected officials accountable. I used to say when we were up in Albany, I mean you can do almost anything, and unless it’s a major issue that gets a lot of coverage in the papers, people don’t know. They could be up there and drink wine and who would know. In our community there was no local paper, other than the Amsterdam, to keep us abreast of the votes on the issues and so forth. So there were some people, I’m not saying who, Black or white, they would love to come up to Albany because it takes them away from the community and the demands and they could just chill. They’ll tell you how to vote. You can chill for three or four days and come back and deal. So I think [we] the community is responsible in the sense of not being able to hold us accountable by knowing what it is that we are supposed to be doing, making sure, it’s always been a problem in the Black community. But then again this means that unless the elected official is self-motivated and strongly committed, then you can be taken off. Because there’s a lot of games that are played in these legislative bodies. They’re leadership-driven and there’s not necessarily a lot of room for independent thinking or independent action. Therefore, you have to know who you are, you have to be very strong and what I found however, is that the “powers-that-be” respect integrity. They may not have it, but they respect it and they respect independence.So if you’re coming from the community and your community is indeed your priority, then you’ll do OK – you’ll do fine. It’s when you try and be like the others that problems begin because you can’t have two masters. You can’t have the community as your master and the leadership of any House as your master. You deal with that by being as supportive as you can, but there are issues, values and principles that you cannot give to anyone and I think that makes a difference.