Civil rights organizer Julian Bond speaks on the work ahead
February 1998

What follows are excerpts from a talk given by civil rights movement organizer Julian Bond at a dinner sponsored by the Black Graduate Student Organization, celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bond is a former SNCC communication director and is president of Institute for Southern Studies (which produces Southern Exposure), vice-president of NCARL, president emeritus Southern Poverty Law Center and a history professor at the University of Virginia. He spoke in Gainesville on January 17.

We stand now in reflection of the earlier movement's success, confused about what our next steps ought to be. The task ahead is an enormous one, equal to if not greater than the job already done. Let me talk about how we came to this moment. About changes over time. ... Let me if you will begin with my own family. My grandfather, James Bond, who was born a slave in Kentucky in 1863. And his slave mother had been given away as a wedding present to a new bride. And when that bride became pregnant, her husband, that's my great-grandmother's owner and master, exercised his right to take his wife's slave as his mistress. That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.

Now under English law, status had descended from the father. But in the states of the old slaveocracy, status derived from the mother, ensuring that the master's black children wouldn't dare to presume to be his heirs. But time changes all things. Today that slave's grandson teaches at the university founded by slave owner Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, teaching young Americans about the modern day struggle for human rights.

That struggle has its roots in Jefferson's words much more than his deeds, and it parallels in my grandfather's membership in a transcendent generation, that body of black women and men born in the 19th century of servitude, freed from slavery by the Civil War, determined to make their way as free women and men.

Today, we are three decades past thesecond reconstruction, the modern movement for Civil Rights that eliminated segregation in the United States. And we are 13 decades past the first reconstruction, the single period in American history in which the national government insisted on and enforced civil rights for Black Americans. 100 years ago, as my grandfather approached his 40th birthday, Black Americans face prospects eerily similar to those we face today.

It was then 30 years after the Civil War ... the 19th Century was winding down, white Americans grew weary of worrying about the welfare of the newly freed slaves, tired of fighting to secure their right to vote, tired of fighting to win their right to attend a public school, then as now, scientific racism and social Darwinism were in vogue. Then as now, a race-weary nation decided these problems could best be solved if left to the individual states. Then as now, racist demagogues walked the land. And then, as now, minorities and immigrants became scapegoats for real and imagined economic distress. Then a reign of state-sanctioned and private terror, including ritual human sacrifice, swept across the South to reinforce white supremacy. That's when the heavy hand of racial segregation descended across the region, a kind of cotton curtain that separated Blacks from education, opportunity, but never from hope.

Speaking in 1901, my grandfather saw the world around him hopefully. He said then, "The false partition set up to separate races and classes are falling down. Illogical and un-Christian distinctions, though still disgracing the age and hampering the spirit of progress, must soon yield to justice and right. Forward in the struggle for advancement."

"Wrong" he said, "for a time, may seem to prevail, the good already accomplished seem to be overthrown. But forward in the struggle, inspired by the achievements of the past, sustained by a faith that knows no faltering, forward in the struggle." ...

But if the movement's origins were in a bitter struggle for elemental civil rights, it largely became in the post-segregation era, a movement for political and economic power. And today black women and men hold office and political power in numbers we only dare dream of before.

But despite impressive increases in the number of black people holding public office, despite our ability to sit and eat and ride and vote and hold banquets in places that used to bar black faces, in some important ways, non-white Americans face problems more difficult to attack now than in all the years that went before.

How much of the origins of today's distresses, and the election victories of '94 and '96 are found in the recent past, and came to climax in the 1980's. Over time, opposition to government, especially Washington government, succeeded opposition to communism as a secular religion. Today the United States, nations, Washington bureaucrats, gays and lesbians, supporters of minority and women's rights, all these have replaced the Soviet Union as the evil empire. And together, these became the energies driving the callous coalition that captured congress in '94. But as long ago as 1964, they had begun to remake the Republican party as the white people's party, and they found a winning formula at the intersection of race and opposition to activist government.

Then for much of the 1980's, America was presided over by an amiable ideologue, whose sole intent was removing government from every aspect of our lives. He brought to power with him a bad of financial and ideological profiteers, who descended on the nation's capital like a crazed swarm of right-wing locusts, bent on destroying the rules and the laws that protect our people from poisoned air and water, and from greed. But nowhere was there an assault on the rule of law so great as in their attempt to subvert, ignore, defy and destroy the laws that require an America which is bias-free. Conflict of interest became a precondition for employment in government.

Then, as now, they unleashed a gang of corporate sociopaths to raid and to ravage the national treasury. Then, as now, they unleashed a form of triage economics on us. Then it produced the first increase in infant mortality rates in 20 years and pushed thousands of poor and working poor Americans deeper and deeper into poverty. So much so that by the middle 1980's the census bureau reported that the number of Americans living in poverty had increased over the previous four years by 9 million. The biggest increase since these statistics were first collected.

Even today the poorest 2/5 of our population receives a smaller share of the national income and the richest 2/5 a larger share than at any time since 1947. The US today is the most economically stratified of all the industrial nations. The gap between rich and poor larger here than in Britain, Italy, Canada, Germany, France, Finland--greater and rising faster here than anywhere else. In this period income for the bottom fifth of the population went down by 9%. For the top fifth it went up by 32%. And for that one percent at the very top, after-tax income went up by 102%. Those years then were what these years now promise to be, a kind of festive party thrown for America's rich. The middle class had to get by on two paychecks, median family income was stagnant, the percentage of young families who own their own houses went down for the first time since the depression. Savings and investment were down. More Americans were working longer hours at lower pay.

And for those Americans whose skins are black or brown, the rate of povery went up while median family income went down. Poverty for black and hispanic senior citizens went up, children who were poor got poorer, the numbers in poverty almost doubled. In 1968 the Kerner Commission, appointed by president Johnson to investigate the causes and to prescribe the cures for the riots of 1967 concluded that racism was the single most important cause of inequality in income, housing, employment, education, life chances between whites and blacks.

Nixon used a Southern strategy which used race to leach white voters away from the Democrats. Within a few very short years, the growing number of blacks, of other minorities, of women pushing for entry into and power in the academy, the media, business, government, other traditionally white male insitutions created a backlash in the discourse over race. The previously privileged majority exploded in angry resentment at having to share space with the formerly excluded. Opinion leaders began to reformulate and redefine the terms of the discussion. Any endictment of majority America could be abandoned. Instead, a Susan Smith defense was adopted, "Black people did it." Did it to the country, did it to themselves. Black behavior, not white racism, became the reason why Blacks and whites lived in separate worlds. Racism retreated and pathology advanced. The burden of racial problem-solving shifted from its creators, to its victims...

So while reformers in Western Europe were attacking much of the poverty that afflicted women and children, here in the United States a ... different lesson was learned. One social scientist wrote of America: "Poverty has been artfully reconfigured as a social/ cultural/ psychological pathology, corroborated by public discourse of deficiency and deviation. Thus, pressure for additional civil rights laws became 'special pleading.' America's most privileged population suddenly became the victim class. Aggressive blacks and pushy women were responsible for America's demise. Now all of this occurred despite all those daily incidents of racial attack and a series of public opinion polls that demonstrate that most Americans think that racial minorities are less than equal human beings, lacking in thrift, morality, industriousness, and patriotism.

Most Americans don't just think minorities are suspect, they think there are more of them than there actually are. According to a recent Gallop Poll, the average American thinks that 18 % of all Americans are Jewish. The real figure is 3%. ... Thinks that 21% of all Americans are hispanic, the exact number is 8%. Most Americans think that 32% of all Americans are Black, the real figure is 12%. So the average American, then, thinks the minorities are a majority, 71% of the national population.

Now, this exaggeration of the other, this blame-shifting and role-reversal, where the victim becomes the perpetrator, where the minority becomes the majority, this perversion of reality, occurred as a result of an organized campaign which continues until this day. It is led by a curious mix of whites and blacks, academics, journalists and policy-makers, its adherents say they support equal rights, while they oppose every tool designed to achieve that goal.

There remains one item on the Civil Rights agenda, economic justice, that has been largely unaddressed and certainly remains unfulfilled. The strategies of the '60's movement were litigation, organization, mobilization and civil disobedience, all aimed at creating a national political constituency for civil rights advances. But in the 1970's, electoral strategies began to dominate, prompted by the increase in black voters created by the Voting Rights Act of '65. The numbers of locally-elected black officials began to multiply, coinciding with a decline in political party organization.

Just as black workers began to win access to industrial jobs and organized labor, the jobs went offshore, and labor declined in power and influence.

Forgotten in the wave of inaugurations of new Black mayors was the plight of blue-collar Blacks. President Nixon's plan to promote Black capitalism, as a cure for undeveloped ghettoes, was embraced by a growing generation of politically-coonected Black entrepreneurs. As their cause gained ascendency, Black elites joined white elites at the feeding trough. Since the heady days of the 1960's, too many have concentrated too much on enriching too few, while large numbers of working-class black Americans, like their counterparts in the larger society, have seen their income shrink, and their jobs disappear.

Remember, King lost his life supporting a garbage-workers strike in Memphis. The right to decent work at decent pay remains as basic to human freedom as the right to vote.

"Negroes," King said in 1961, "Are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers." That there are many many more Black millionaires today is a tribute to the movement King led. That there are actually proportionately fewer Black people working today is an endictment of our times and our economic system, a reflection of our failure to keep the movement coming on.

Everywhere we look, Black Americans face conditions different from, but just as daunting as the bus back seats, billy clubs, and firehoses of three decades ago. Today the net assets of a black family in which one member has a post-graduate degree are lower than the assets of white families in which the highest level of education is elementary school.

In life chances, life expectancy, median income, by all the standards by which life is measured, Black Americans see a gulf between the American dream and the reality of their lives.

Over the last 30 years, the most effective tool for avancing entry into the mainstream has been affirmative action. Its opponents now try to tell us that it doesn't work. Or it used to work, but it doesn't work now. Or we used to need it but we don't need it now. Or when it does work, it only helps people who don't need it.

They like to argue that the beneficiaries of race-centered affirmative action are somehow profiting from it, as if it's comparable to an investment shared by a greedy few ... There's no profit in receiving right treatment. Receiving rights others already enjoy is no benefit or badge of privilege, it is the natural order of things in a democratic society.

Affirmative action isn't a poverty program, ought not be blamed for failing to solve problems it wasn't designed to solve, it was designed to counter racial discrimination, not poverty. But it did create a sizable middle class, which constitutes 1/3 of black America today. From 1970-1990, the number of black police officers more than doubled, the number of black electricians tripled, the number of black bank tellers more than quadrupled, the percentage of blacks in technical and managerial jobs doubled during this period.

The critics claim that we ought to go back to a non-existent color-blind society. They are color-blind all right, blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today. They like to say that affirmative action stigmatizes all black people, making the beneficiaries and all others feel like they've received some benefit they don't deserve. Why doesn't somebody make that argument about the millions of whites who got into college as a legacy because dad is an alumnus. Those who got good jobs because dad was president of the company. You never see them walking around with their heads held low, moaning that they've lost their self-esteem because everybody in the executive washroom is whispering about how they got their job. Today white men are 92% of the U.S. Senate, 80% of the U.S. House, 90% of the nations newspaper editors, 80% of the tenured faculty at the nations colleges. I seriously doubt if a single one of these men is suffering low self-esteem or any other stigma because his race and gender helped him win his job.

previous article [current issue] next article
Search | Archives | Calendar | Directory | About / Subscriptions |

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional eXTReMe Tracker