Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and professor of history at the University of Virginia, Julian Bond delivered a lecture on “Civil Rights: Then and Now” in honor of Martin Luther King Day yesterday.
Born in Nashville, Tenn., Bond has been involved with the civil rights movement since his youth. As a student at Morehouse College, he studied under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He also helped to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He wrote Black Candidates – Southern Campaign Experiences and A Time to Speak, A Time to Act: A Call for Black Solidarity.
After Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus James MacGregor Burns ’39 introduced Bond as a “healer” and unifier of the civil rights movement, Bond began his lecture by asking, “How do we speak about race in America without making people uncomfortable?” Race issues, he said, make people uncomfortable, but they must be discussed in spite of this.
Bond noted that only his father’s generation separates him from slavery. His grandfather was born in 1863 in Kentucky. At age 15, he walked across Kentucky to Berea College. Fifteen years later he graduated and gave the commencement address. Bond said his grandfather demonstrated the attitude that will change race relationships in America.
In his commencement speech, Bond’s grandfather first pointed out the perspective of those dissatisfied with the status quo, noting that “in every shadow they see a lurking foe.”
However, his grandfather went on to point out that man “forgets that shadow and darkness prepare the way for sunshine and growth.” His grandfather’s lesson that “greater efforts” lead to “grander victories” is “the promise we must all seek today.”
Bond compared today to his grandfather’s time, remarking that as much as things have changed, many other things remain the same. He believes nativism and racial stereotyping, for example, continue to impede progress of race relations in America.
Created in 1909 by a Jew, a southerner and the son of an abolitionist, the NAACP later provided the burgeoning civil rights movement with an organized base for action, particularly through litigatio, Bond said.
During World War I, the NAACP helped integrate the officer corps. In the 1930s, it joined organized labor to defeat the nomination of an unfavorable Supreme Court nominee and, subsequently, the congressmen who supported the nomination. Bond said that in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the NAACP demonstrated that a “non-violent army had the power to threaten the morality of segregation.”
It was the small acts of non-violent resistance that created the momentum for the legal movement that ended segregation less than a decade after its inception. Moreover, the civil rights movement of the 1960s revealed that “every man and woman could be an agent of their own deliverance.”
Nevertheless, Bond said, “despite the march of progress, the forces of reaction are still strong.” He then asked “What made the freedom train slow down?” as a segue into a discussion of the forces of racism.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission found that racism was the most important cause of inequality between blacks and whites. The push made by women – black and white – to achieve equality also led to a backlash of angry resentment against the changes created by the civil rights movement.
According to Bond, it was during this backlash that terms were redefined and a “blame the victim” mentality emerged. The rationale for racial subordination, he argued, changed from “nature to nurture” as black behavior rather than white racism became the reason racial segregation continued.
Looking again to DuBois, Bond advocated ceaseless agitation as a method of change. DuBois said that to stop the curtailing of political rights for blacks, they must press matters such as the right to vote and civil rights as well work for the inclusion of the study of black history and attacking interracial crime.
Bond cited the present Senate and House of Representatives as one reason for his insistence that African-Americans today must continue to contest their status.
He used Speaker of the House Trent Lott’s association with white supremacist groups as one example of Congress’ hostility towards civil rights. While “we wanted to be Y2K compliant,” he argued, “they seem KKK compliant.”
“That we want public education for all,” whereas “they want public welfare for private schools” is one of many differences Bond sees between Congress and his perspective on current issues. Furthermore, when he advocates “justice and fairness for all,” he is accused of playing “the race card.”
The problem is not just Congress, Bond said, but courts “populated by Reagan and Bush appointees” attacking affirmative action. The attack, according to Bond, results not from the failure of affirmative action, but from its success in creating a sizable black middle class.
He set up a hypothetical football game between whites and blacks in which the whites have been cheating since the game began. In the fourth quarter, the whites are crushing the blacks when the white quarterback “feels bad and asks ‘Why can’t we play fair?’” But fairness for the white quarterback after centuries of cheating just “permanently fix[es] inequality in the American scene.”
He berated those who want to replace race-based affirmative action with economic based affirmative action. “As long as race counts in America, we have to count race,” Bond argued.
He disparaged the failure of many cities to compile statistics on race motivated crimes, noting that without data, “there is no discrimination.”
The end of “American apartheid” in the 1960s has made it too easy to believe discrimination has disappeared when, in reality, Bond said, it has not. Polls have shown that inequalities still exist in educational opportunities and rates of success for minorities in America.
According to Bond, “race is a central fact of life for all non-white Americans.” He warned the audience about a “dangerous nostalgic narrative” in recent movies and books that eliminate civil rights violations and racial complexities from their portrayal of the past.
In many ways, the situation has improved for African-Americans, Bond said. Black poverty is at an all-time low and black unemployment has decreased, but it is still twice as high as white unemployment.
The net financial assets of a black family with one college graduate are lower than those of a white family with only an elementary school graduate.
The differences between how blacks and whites see the past century are problematic for Bond. While blacks tend to identify the struggle for civil rights as the most compelling event of the century, whites tend to look to international events and wars.
According to Bond, “we need no less [and] should insist on more” of the litigation and mobilization that propelled the civil rights movement forward. The “aggressive voluntarism and self-help” movements of the past century are not enough, Bond argued, to change the status quo. It would be a mistake for blacks to fight alone as “we all are implicated in the continuation of inequality and all must help to make it end.
Bond’s final message was that Americans “have not wished their way to freedom, but have worked their way to it.” He concluded by saying that the challenge for the next century is to ensure the youth of today have the best possible education to propel the nation forward.