As we drove along the lengthy expanse of I-94 East, Julian Bond looked straight ahead. His eyes have the greyish tinge of age, perhaps the reward of decades of struggle against oppression. As he spoke, the bass rumblings of his voice conveyed compassion with the same intensity in conversation as they do from behind the podium. It’s fitting that Bond narrated the seminal PBS documentary series Eyes On the Prize because that phrase perfectly encapsulates the experience of meeting him. His gaze is perpetually locked on an America without oppression, an America only possible because of the work of his career.
Bond is one of the most important figures in the struggle for civil rights. He was a student of Dr. Martin Luther King during his one semester of teaching at Morehouse College, one of only eight people able to make that claim. Bond was then an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a soon-to-be prominent organization, and would eventually be elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965. He would not serve until the next year, as the Georgia House refused to seat him due to his race and anti-Vietnam views. Bond challenged the state of Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court to be allowed his seat in the House. The Court voted unanimously to instate him. After spending time in academia, and 20 years in the legislature, Bond became the chairman of the NAACP in 1998.
Bond’s humble demeanor speaks to the volumes of his caring for his fellow human beings. The ease with which he articulates the case for human rights comes just as much from his heart as from decades of practice. I had the great pleasure of being able to interview Bond as we drove to the airport the morning after the Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation. This is the result.
The Pleiad: I’d like to start by asking, “What is Julian Bond’s vision for America?” In the context of the progress we’ve made during your career, what’s the future look like?
Bond: Well, I want a country that is free of prejudice more than anything else, and one that is not distinguished as we are now by income differences. I don’t want everybody to make the same amount of money, but I don’t want there to be these enormous gaps between rich and poor.
What do you think are the next steps for us to get there?
I think some of the next steps are the old steps. I don’t think there’s much new in the fighting discrimination business. Lawsuits and protests are the standard menu of things to do that’ve been done in the past that have worked successfully and will work if used in the future. So I don’t think there are many new things. I think there are some things that haven’t been given the attention they ought to have been. One is housing segregation. I don’t think any of the civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, have done what they ought to have done in housing discrimination. Housing segregation is still an enormous problem in the United States, and we don’t pay enough attention to because it’s at the root of other problems. If black people live over here and white people live over here, that generally means that the white people are segregated with the better schools, the better jobs, and so forth. That’s something we all ought to pay attention to and we don’t pay as much attention to it as we ought to.
That issue is especially pertinent in Michigan, given that a lot of the makeup of southeast Michigan is constructed off of the “white flight” to the suburbs.
I just read an article in the New Yorker the previous week about the guy who’s head of the county commission in the county outside Detroit [L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County Commissioner] who runs it like it’s his own. They don’t hold him responsible for the segregated housing, but he’s not against it.
What steps can be taken to reduce the problem of housing segregation? That seems to be a demographic trend.
The problem is that some of it is voluntary, and it’s hard to break peoples’ habits. If you’re used to living with people who look like you and you’re comfortable with that, it’s hard to think that you ought to go towards some other pattern. It’s a difficult problem to confront, but it is illegal to segregate housing. We have laws in this country about it. There are many groups that do make an effort at it, people who go to real estate places and test whether or not they’re open to others. In fact, lawyers can make money fighting housing segregation, and it’s interesting that more lawyers don’t get engaged in this, because there’s money to be made. But, there are things you can do, and they’re not being done.
Something I’m excited about as someone living in Michigan is the promise for change and progress in this time of great economic upheaval in Detroit, and so I’m hoping things like that can come out of that.
I am too. It seems to me that Detroit is working towards some solutions to its problems. From what I read in the papers, things are looking up, and maybe improving, so, you know, there’s always a happy ending, or, at least we hope for a happy ending, and it may be coming
Given your history of protest and activism, what do you think about the many popular uprisings in the past few years? In America, Occupy Wall Street has left a hopefully-lasting impression on our cultural consciousness. From Egypt to Ukraine now, people are rising up across the globe. What do you think about that?
I think that these are all positive things, some more positive than others, some having a better outcome than others. But I think it’s some indication that people want change, they want things to be different than they are now, and they want to have some hand in making it so. That’s something all of us ought to be grateful for, and ought to be helping to guide this change.
Another issue related to these protests is the reactionary response, the police response, to uprisings. It seems to me that police powers in America and police response to activism has been a growing problem. Do you care to comment on that at all?
I think it is true that police for better or for worse don’t always behave as well as they ought to. when confronted with these outbreaks of what appear to them to be upsets in the order of things. They tend to be a conservative people, and have a conservative view of things ought to be. When they see them not working in that way, they’re upset, and they sometimes behave badly.
Another thing that’s tied to the issue of police especially in concerns of race is the drug war. Often, minorities are disproportionately targeted by police, especially in drug arrests. Do you care to comment on the role of race in those issues?
I think it plays a disproportionate role in law enforcement, as we can see in the stop-and-frisk laws in New York City that overwhelmingly target black men. It’s beyond imagination to think that black men are responsible for crime in that number. It begs belief. You can’t imagine that’s the case. But what we do know is that black men are disproportionately targeted in New York City. It’s fairly obvious that race plays a disproportionate role in law enforcement. Who’s picking who does get arrested, for what, and what kind of punishment do they get, and on and on. It’s something we ought to be worried about and ought to do what we can about. You see this spate of legalization of marijuana laws is one result of people reacting correctly to the racial element in law enforcement. That’s not to say that all of the push for legalization of marijuana is racially based, or that people think that if we change these laws, there will be a racial nirvana. But is saying that people are concerned about it and doing something about it, and that’s a good thing.
Would you care to explain where you think America stands on environmental issues? I feel like it’s interesting that given your career, you also take interest in the environment.
I like to think that I’ve always been interested in the environment, it’s always been a matter of concern, I have to breathe air, and I have to drink the water, and I know that neither the air nor the water are as pure as I’d want them to be. If I feel that way, I ought to do something about it. So I got involved in a protest against the [Keystone XL] pipeline, and got arrested at the White House. I’m not sure if President Obama looked out his window and said, “Oh, there’s Julian Bond, I better do something about this!” I think perhaps he’s likely to do the wrong thing, but I wanted to put my two cents in, and so I did.
For a little context, the Keystone pipeline is an pipeline that would pump Canadian oil into Alaska and then back down into the continental US, correct? In the process, what are the possibilities?
The possibility is that the pipeline might break, as they often do, they’ll spill oil all over the country, as they often do. It just seems an invitation to chaos that we don’t need. It’s also going to be a gift to the oil companies, and they get enough gifts as it is.
On Tuesday, in the State of the Union, Obama called for tax reform. What do you think the tax code should look like, especially as far as businesses and the wealthy are taxed? That’s an extremely pertinent area as far as income inequality.
It is, and it’s an area of our tax policy that badly needs reform. I tell ya, I’m not optimistic about that reform coming as quickly as it should, or coming at all, because the money speaks so strongly and so powerfully in not only the American economy, but the American polity in deciding taxes. There’s that old saying, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!” That fellow behind the tree is usually me, or some working stiff, instead of the businesspeople who don’t pay their fair share of taxes, get tax breaks that give them encouragement to continue bad behavior. We ought to do something about it.
I think what’s important to touch on is the actual doing of things about it. I feel like there is great capacity for change as there is a generational shift with the people who are in politics. Can you comment on whether the political process will look different in the future?
I think it will, and I think there’s a surge toward young people becoming engaged–or at least I hope so– in the political process and bringing new thoughts and new ideas to it. I can’t say that this is guaranteed to happen, but it seems to me likely to happen. I hope I’m right, and that things turn out differently in the future than they have done so in the past because of the influence of younger people. You seem to be open to change, and feel differently about a number of things. Look at nothing except the movement of gay and lesbian people. I think it’s gotten an enormous push from changing ideas from younger people who feel so differently about these issues today than their parents or grandparents did. They’re open to thinking that gay and lesbian people ought to get fairness and justice and ought not be treated as pariahs and made to be shuttled away.
You mentioned in your keynote last night that the LGBT movement has taken great success from its emulation of the civil rights movement. What do you think is next for them, and what similarities or differences do you see in the two movements?
Well, the similarities are that here are a group of people who are facing discrimination through conditions they were born with, not conditions they adopted themselves. People who think whether you can choose whether or not to be gay are just idiots, and don’t have any real idea of how human beings are built. They need to disabuse themselves of that idea, as it’s against the law to discriminate against somebody because of a condition of their birth. And that’s the standard by which all of us ought to behave.
What do you think can be done to raise consciousness of the issue that sexual orientation is just a fact of your birth and should be treated as such?
I think one of the hardest things we can do is say to gay and lesbian people that you have to come out. You have to say “I’m gay. You know me, I’ve been working next to you for a couple of years, I’ve been going to your church, I’ve been sitting in the pew next to you. I’ve been going to school with you, and you know me. The fact that I’m gay ought not make any difference to you, now that you know that I’m now saying that I’m gay.” That’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t doubt that it’s a tough road to go, but I think that’s an important step in changing attitudes towards people who are gay. Hard as it is, I think it must be done. I think you have to be afraid to come out, because the opposition can be so bitter, it can be so ugly. Nonetheless, I think it is something that has to be done.
What do you think the modern civil rights movement looks like? What are the issue that people who are pressing for civil rights in 2014 are grappling with? What about recent issues like the Trayvon Martin case? Where do they fall?
Well, I think the Trayvon Martin case just exposed a too-common problem of targeting black people because of the way they look, rather than anything they’ve done. That’s what happened in this case. This guy, George Zimmerman, obviously thought Trayvon Martin was up to no good, and up to no good because of the way he looked, and I think because he wore a hoodie, and because he was young. The combination of his race, his hoodie said to George Zimmerman that he should be given some type of special scrutiny. Of course, he’s just some young kid going to the store. To think that he ended up dead because of that is horrendous. This is not a new phenomenon. This is an old one. That’s why I say, if you look at civil rights in a larger sense, there’s really nothing new to do, but there are old things that need to be done, and old things that need to be done more strongly and more completely, more vigorously. But there’s really nothing new. You could say that the movement of gay and lesbian people is a relatively new phenomenon, but they’ve been asking for decades for some justice. Every year, and I’m surprised we haven’t heard it yet this past January, somebody will say, “XYZ is the new civil rights.” I hate to hear that. I don’t think there are any new civil rights. I think there are only just rights. I’m fond of saying that there is no such thing as gay rights. Just rights. There are no such thing as black rights. Just rights. No such thing as women’s rights. Just plain rights. All these people have rights, and they all ought to be attended to.
What do you think of legal aid organizations and their power to effect change? Are they more able to now after their great successes in the last forty years?
Speaking generally, an appeal to the Supreme Court is less likely to be successful on the progressive end than was true in the past; the state courts on the other hand, seem ripe for change. Many state constitutions have provisions that are more progressive than the United States Constitution’s…I’m not sure if that’s true for Michigan, but many states have more progressive constitutions and therefore you are more likely to find success in the state courts than the Supreme Court.
Something that interests me is the 40-year gap between 1968, when you were nominated for vice -president, and 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Can you pick out any events or movements in those forty years that led to the change in conditions that allowed that to happen?.
I think an enormous number of events occured, and oddly enough, some of them are things that we wouldn’t think of as contributing to the election of Barack Obama. Look at the Bill Cosby TV show. I think that created a change in attitude among white Americans that they weren’t understanding at the time was occurring. Seeing the Cosby family on TV, middle-class, successful people who don’t fit the stereotype that many white Americans had of black Americans, the Cosby show widened the possibility that someone like Barack Obama might be elected President of the United States. It didn’t make him get elected, but it helped him get elected. Minute other things like this that opened the door, and opened the possibility. I think every time a black man or woman got elected to public office who had not been elected before , every time a black man or woman got a job that someone like them had never had before, every time a black man or woman became the head of something or another, and the public saw that they could handle the job capably and responsibly, widened the possibility. These smaller things that didn’t seem to be more than someone getting a job had an enormous effect on the thinking of white Americans. They weave into the public fabric that it’s okay for X and Y to happen. so we can move forward on this.
What would you tell a young person who wants to follow in your footsteps and effect the change they wish to see upon the world?
Look around your community. See whether or not there’s an organization that’s engaged in the kind of issues you want to be engaged in.. If there is, and there probably will be if you look hard enough, then you should become engaged with that organization! Young people so often want to create a brand new organization when there are existing organizations doing what they want done. If the organization isn’t working up to your standards, make it so! Join it and make it become the kind of organization you want it to be. I think we have too many organizations doing too many things. They dilute the pool of people eager to do these sorts of things.
Public discourse is something I’m personally interested in as a journalist. The way we talk to each other and the fundamental values we bring to the table when we talk to each other as Americans are very important. Where do you think the public discourse is at now? Do you feel as though debate in America is gearing up in a healthy way?
It’s a yes and no answer. I think what’s happened with journalism, and it’s not something I think is particular to journalism, it’s particular to the world we live in. If you look at the cutback in newspapers, and the loss of experienced people who were experts in their field has been harmful to the discourse on race relations. The men and women working for the newspaper who knew all the players and the ins-and-outs of the issues are gone now, and he or she has been replaced with someone who is younger and doesn’t know the history. Some memory has been lost, and when that memory is lost, the issue doesn’t get the kind of coverage it ought to get. Not that these people are bigoted on this issue, just unknowing, and having been unknowing, don’t treat it with the sensibility it deserves.
Something you said yesterday in your conversation with Wes Dick was that it was more important that Obama won re-election than election in the first place. What do you think is revealed in that comment?
I think his re-election was actually harder than his election, although that seems counter-intuitive. Getting a black man elected president was a huge step forward, but getting re-elected seems to me equally as important a step. It may even be more important, because he was an unknown before. You could think on about him in ways that were favorable to him. The second time around, you know him, you know his faults, and he was able to convince the American public to take him on a second time. I think that’s more powerful.
You yourself ran for president in 1976. What was that campaign like?
It initially began as an attempt to follow on an old phenomenon that you see in American politics, and that is the “favored son” candidate. In every election, there are people running that know they aren’t going to be elected President of the United States. But running will raise some issue or make sure something in their state will get the attention it wouldn’t otherwise if they didn’t run for president. My initial idea was that some prominent candidates could raise common issues that were pertinent for black Americans. I tried to promote this idea, and nobody seemed to say “Boy, what a great idea that is.” So I decided to run myself, again not thinking that I would be President for the United States, but that I could raise some issues. Turned out I couldn’t raise the money or put together an effective campaign. I thought it was a great idea, and wish I had been able to carry it on.
You did inspire some debate about prejudice through your election to the Georgia legislature. Could you comment on that?
Just before I was elected, and I was elected to a one-year term in the legislature, because the federal court ordered a new election be held because the legislature was so incredibly malapportioned that they ordered the legislature be reapportioned and new people elected to those new seats. I was elected to serve a year in one of these seats. Before my election, one of my friends was shot and killed because he tried to use a whites-only bathroom. He had a lost a kidney in service to his country in the Navy. The idea of this man losing a kidney in service to his country and then being unable to use the bathroom was horrendous to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where I worked at the time. It brought a lot of anti-war sentiment to the surface, and we released an anti-war statement against the Vietnam War. This aroused the enmity of my colleagues in the legislature. I can’t help but think some of it was motivated by racial animus, and it was my race as well as my anti-war statements that agitated them. They voted to kick me out of the legislature. I was part of one of the first groups of black Americans elected since Reconstruction, and that meant some of their colleagues had not been elected. My colleagues voted me out, declared my seat vacant, and called for a new election. I ran for that election, won that election, and then they put me out again. They called for another election. I got into the legislature under this shadow, and I was painted in the media as sort of a radical guy. I thought I was the most liberal legislator elected at that time, but I wasn’t a radical guy. I was just a regular guy! [Bond took the case of his voting out to the United States Supreme Court in Bond v. Floyd. The Court voted unanimously for Georgia to instate him.]
It’s interesting that you comment on the intersection of political and racial distaste for someone combining to have this physical effect on their ability to work in politics. Many have raised the issue that Obama is facing similar problems. Do you feel as though that’s the case?
Yes. They’re not quite parallel, but similar in many ways. It was said to me that I would not be an effective legislator because I would be so controversial, and that no one would vote for legislation that I promoted. That turned out not to be true. If you had a good idea, and could convince enough of your fellows that it was a good idea, you could do it. I was in the legislature for twenty years, and was able to pass laws that my colleagues embraced. I think I had a pretty good record as a legislator. Obama’s different in that as President, he has powers that I did not have as a single legislator. They’re not exact parallels, but they’re similar.
When you were at Morehouse College, you had the privilege of being one of only eight students to take the class Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr taught. What was it like being in the classroom with him? What do you remember learning distinctly from it?
Remember that while King was an enormously well-known figure then, he was not anywhere as well know as he would become. He had gotten the attention of the country because of his leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott a couple of years before he became my teacher. He was a well-thought-of personality. However, that was the sum of his accomplishments so far, and most people thought that was it–that was all he had done. So the fact that he was teaching at Morehouse was notable, but it wasn’t tremendously notable. I would tell people Martin Luther King, Jr. was my teacher and they’d say “Boy, that’s really interesting,” but it wasn’t the phenomenon it could have been at a later time in his career. I don’t remember much of what transpired in the course, but most of the class was King and his teacher, Dr. Samuel Williams, reminiscing about the civil rights movement. It was a wonderful occasion for us to learn from him than I think we did, and I don’t think we realized what a gem we had at our fingertips.
You mentioned last night that while we revere King now, he was reviled by many during his lifetime. What can you say about his legacy, given that?
His legacy has been increased by his death at an early age, just like John Kennedy, who I think is thought more of because he died as a young man than had he lived out his life. However, we don’t know what King or Kennedy’s life would have looked like. In the history business, we