Five Minutes With
Julian Bond was the proto-student activist. While still in college in the late 1950s at Morehouse in Atlanta, Bond was a founder of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, a student civil rights organization that helped win key integration battles in Atlanta. Bond was simultaneously involved in forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As SNCC’s communications director, he was responsible for the publication of its newsletter, the Student Voice. Bond has gone on to wear many hats in his professional pursuit of social justice. He was on staff at the activist newspaper the Atlanta Inquirer. He was elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1965 and had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to win the right to his seat—the House voted not to seat him because of his early, outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Bond later served in the Georgia State Senate as well. He was the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and today is on its board of directors. Bond has served several terms on the National Board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. He has been chairman of the NAACP since his election in February 1998. He is currently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American University in Washington, D.C., and a professor in the history department at the University of Virginia. Campus Progress called him to get his thoughts on civil rights, “Eyes on the Prize” and the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“Eyes on the Prize,” the landmark civil rights documentary, is being re-released for the first time in ten years this month, and Campus Progress is sponsoring the Washington, D.C. premiere. What would you say about that film, and the civil rights era, to our readers?
You know I’m the narrator, so it seems sort of self-serving of me to say this, but it truly is the best documentary of the civil rights movement. I just think it’s a vital, vital way of showing students of almost any age what this movement was about. You know, books can contain far more information than a documentary. But nothing hits you as much as a picture of children being hosed down in the streets of Birmingham, or the aftermath of the wreckage of Dr. King’s house after it was bombed in Montgomery during the bus boycott, of the magnitude of the crowd at the March on Washington. The pictures that show these things are much more powerful than words, as the cliché goes.
For college kids today, what do you think is the most important civil rights issue they should focus on if they are activists?
We’ve all got to be cognizant right now of voter violations or violations against the right of everyone to register to vote and cast a vote. You know, we have thousands and thousands of voting systems in the country, each one with a different set of rules and processes; each one run by some local jurisdiction. We thought when we passed the Help America Vote Act some years ago that it would clean up this mess. It hasn’t. We badly need to pay much stronger attention to our election system, and make sure it serves everybody fairly and justly. And make sure every citizen has a right to cast his or her vote, and most importantly, make sure that every vote is fairly counted in a public way and that a record is kept.
So one thing we all ought to be worried about is discrimination at the ballot box and the efficiency and the functionality of the election process. But you know the discrimination is so widespread and so pervasive and so harmful, it’s really almost impossible to say, this is the most important thing. All these things are important: discrimination in education and employment, in almost everything, it touches so many people lives and breeds so much harm for them. So we’ve just got to be alert to it wherever it rears its ugly head.
A lot of African-Americans, including those who would consider themselves progressive, don’t support anti-discrimination protections for gays and are especially hostile to gay marriage. How do you, if you support equal rights for gay Americans, talk to members of the African-American and Latino communities and try to bridge that divide?
Well first I’d say to people, I do support civil rights protections for people because of their sexual orientation. I personally support marriage rights, and I say personally because this is not a position the NAACP holds. We’ve never taken sides on this issue. But I say to people who hold different views, you got to stop making up your mind based on superstition. And what you believe, I think, is superstition. You believe that gay people say when they are 6 or 7 or 8 years old, say, “I guess I’ll be gay.” And then they become gay. Or, “I guess I’ll become a lesbian.” And they become a lesbian. And of course that’s just nonsense, that’s idiocy, and if you believe it you’re a fool.
And secondly, you know you might be taking instruction from the Bible. But you don’t believe everything in the Bible, do you? If you do, please, look around you. Smell the coffee. You really want to quote Leviticus, where it says where a man shall not lay with a man as he lays with a woman. But what about that section in Leviticus that says, “Thou shall not wear clothes made of different cloth.” I bet you’re wearing a silk tie, a cotton shirt, a wool suit. You don’t believe that—why do you believe the other? So stop listening to that superstition.
Finally, don’t worry about comparisons between the movement among gays and lesbians and among black people or Hispanics, there are no such things as special rights. The people asking for civil rights are not asking for anything special, everybody in the country has civil rights. It’s just nonsense to think that they’re asking for something that other people didn’t ask for. Or that if they get civil rights protections that somehow other people loose their protection. This is not a game where if the gay people win, the black people loose. When somebody else gains their civil rights, I like to feel the army protecting my civil rights has been broadened and extended. This is something that just really exercises me, because there’s so much ignorance and intolerance and bigotry associated with it. And sad to say so much of it comes from the black clergy. Here in D.C. we’ve had two speakers and black ministers from their pulpit make the worse kind of homophobic, ignorant kinds of statements. You’d think their churches would rise up and cast themout, but I guess they don’t.
What do you think of this administration’s civil rights record?
With the ascension of this conservative cabal, we’ve seen packing the courts with people who are hostile to the accepted remedies for civil rights violations and electing to the House and the Senate men and women determined to destroy the mechanisms that address discrimination. And there is the attempt, in some quarters to even eliminate the ability to collect racial statistics. Without which of course, making a case of racial discrimination is next to impossible. So this is an awful period for people who believe in justice and fair play.
The conservatives have done everything they can to diminish the government’s ability to intervene, not only in discrimination cases, but through a wide range of occasions where the private citizen badly needs his or her government to step in and defend him.
Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the recent one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina?
Well, you know the anniversary just reminds you of the stunning incompetence of everyone from the mayor’s office to the governor’s office to the president’s office and the inability of the federal government to live up to its responsibility to help people who cannot help themselves. It’s just outstanding and, you know, it’s symptomatic of the conservative philosophy. You know, Grover Norquist said they wanted to starve the government so small it would drown in a bathtub, and in New Orleans it did.
Do you think that progress has been made in terms of better preparing for the next natural catastrophe or terrorist attack? Or do you think the government is just as irresponsible?
I would like to be optimistic. But you know, it’s hard to be optimistic about preparedness. If you think about terrorist attacks, our ports are no safer now than they were on 9/11, our borders are no safer than they were on 9/11, and our airplanes are, you know, are only slightly safer. So you know two out of three is awful. And we’ve also in the years since 9/11, we have stirred up anger against the United States by pursuing this foolish, foolish war. So I don’t think we’re any safer now than we were then. And I don’t think the government is any better prepared to defend us from the anger that they’ve helped create around the world.
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