Photo by Ted Lieverman (http://www.tmlphotojournal.com/)
Julian Bond, who passed away on August 15, at age 75, was a legend in the civil rights movement, and a powerful presence in Washington, D.C., where I had the good fortune to interact with him when I was Washington editor of The Progressive.
Bond cut a glamorous figure in progressive circles. He was both a passionate advocate and a wry, witty, brilliant man.
A speech he gave to the National Press Club, which I attended years ago when I was a reporter in Washington and Bond was president of the NAACP, summed up his sensibility. The speech was called, “Civil Rights, Now and Then.”
In it, Bond patiently explained why the disparity between black and white life circumstances is not a result of poor individual choices; why affirmative action does not constitute unfair special treatment for black people; and how structural racism contributes to the disenfranchisement and economic abandonment of African American citizens.
Bond lived through the great consciousness-raising of the civil rights era, took part in the protests and marches and strikes that ended legal segregation and enforced voting rights. And then he lived through the era of retrenchment disguised as progress.
When I was in Washington in the late 1990s, Bond’s role was, partly, to explain to a complacent white establishment why racism was not, in fact, over.
“Though times have changed, the conditions facing black Americans today are just as daunting as the fire hoses and billy clubs of four decades ago,” he said in the speech I attended. “You only have to compare the lives of black and white children.”
From poverty to homicide, the problems that afflict African American children in this country shows, as Bond put it, “a deep gulf between the American dream and the reality of their lives.”
Having dispatched the idea that racism is over and all is well in America, Bond went on to talk about the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
“Black Americans didn’t just march into freedom,” he said. "We worked our way into civil rights through the difficult business of organizing: knocking on doors, one by one; registering voters, one by one; building communities, block by block; financing the cause, dollar by dollar; and creating coalitions, one step at a time.”
He went on to argue that, “for too many people today, the fight for equal justice is a spectator sport.”
He urged young people—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American—to make common cause.
May that be his legacy.