Julian Bond Reflection on Today's Racial Inequality

The following is drawn from an interview with Julian Bond in 2013 for a report that was never published. In this interview, Julian Bond reflects on where we are 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King gave his famous "I Have A Dream Speech."

I was lucky enough when in college to have been taught civil rights history by Julian Bond and worked on an oral history project in Mississippi he supported. I coordinated this interview and had my friend David Thigpen currently of the Insititute for the Future ask most of the questions.

It should be noted that this interview occurred about a year after the killing of Trayvon Martin and about a year before the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, before "Black lives matter" became a phrase popularly used in the context of racial inequality. Yet, as a founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center and member, board member and former chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond spent his entire career fighting to make Black lives matter and highlights in this interview the ongoing challenges of inequality and the need for the black middle class and all Americans to be more involved in the deconstruction of white supremacy. I have taken the privilege of highlighting what I think are some of the important statements that I hope we can learn from today as we take the torch from our elder and continue the long ongoing struggle of ending racial hierarchy in the United States.

Julian Bond: There is no sense in sugarcoating the March [March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963]. It was a wonderful expression, it was a real proof that large numbers of Americans, both black and white, supported civil rights, it was a shot in the arm for the movement and a wonderful occasion, but it wasn't the end of civil rights. It wasn't a great victory, except in the psychological sense. So I hope this report will be sober about what has and has not changed from that day to this. I hope this report notes what is still lacking, what the March on Washington did not do and what the speakers hoped for but was not realized.

David Thigpen: Has discrimination changed and is it still as problematic as it was back then?

Julian Bond: Yes, yes it certainly has changed. I think most of us, we thought discrimination was Jim Crow sized, no black people allowed, or segregated schools, white kids go to school here black kids go to school there. Today these physical manifestations are not quite as evident as they used to be. The problem still exists, but it's more muted and more hidden, less obvious to many. Many Americans believed with the removal of the Jim Crow signs the whole problem or racial inequality would disappear.

David Thigpen: So when you say it's less evident, where do you see discrimination occurring today?

Julian Bond: If you want to see it operating in some obvious places, you look in public schools. The divide between black and white schools still exists. It's still evident, you see it everywhere in the country. I saw a statistics somewhere, I wish I could quote it, saying that Hispanic children are now as segregated as Black children were in the 1960s. And, you know, that's not good news for anybody. But another place you see it is of course in jobs. I live in DC, and you drive around and you see construction sites and you never see any Black faces at that construction site. You see Hispanic faces, but you don't see Black faces, and on and on and on. I think there are places all around our society, where if you look for it you can see it and find it.

David Thigpen: What about in higher education and graduate programs, and places that train professionals? Do you see its presence there?

Julian Bond: Oh, sure. I retired from the University of Virginia in May of last year and when I started teaching there 20 years ago, I think black students were about 13 percent or so, of the student body. Today they are 6 percent. If you look at the University of California, and the aftermath of the removal of affirmative action, you see the same kind of discrimination, you see the same kind of statistics. And I'll bet you if you look around the country, you can find them easily enormous gaps between black and white college students. The graduation rate is almost becoming more equal, while the attendance rate is still visibly segregated.

David Thigpen: Where do you see progress now? Where have we made progress? What makes you optimistic?

Julian Bond: There is no place I can't go if I have enough money to go there. There is no function I can't attend if I have the money to pay the price. These things are all available to me, so in one regard, the kind of petty apartheid that used to exist all over America has disappeared. But a different kind of apartheid has settled upon us, I shouldn't say settled upon us because it has been here all the time, but it wasn't as evident then as it is now.

David Thigpen: When you look at the evidence of a black middle class and an increased black elite what does that mean to you?

Julian Bond: Not a whole lot, because typically these are people who are not engaged in any kind of support of the struggle for justice and equality. Typically, these are people who believe that their being is their contribution they make to the struggle of black rights. So they don't have to give any money, they just have to be.

David Thigpen: Are there new approaches that leadership should be taking to get things moving in the direction we would like them to move again?

Julian Bond: In a way I am sure there are, but I am sad to say, I don't know what these approaches ought to be. You look at the organizations that started the March; the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Race and Equality, the National Urban League, SNCC, and the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, those big six are, with the exception of the Congress of Race and Equality, are still doing what they did then. Now the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is much, much smaller than it used to be, so it doesn't play anywhere near the same role it did then. The Urban League is still very much a social welfare organization, and it continues on that path. The NAACP fights discrimination, and it continues doing that, it does now what it did then, so I am not sure what it is that is missing, except numbers. That's the big loss,that if you compare today with the participation of people of color alone in civil rights activities. I think you had a larger percentage in 1963 participating in Civil Rights activities than we do today.

David Thigpen: And why is that?

Julian Bond: I'm not sure why it is true. I think there are some reasons that are relatively obvious, people spend more time at their jobs and work. People are engaged more in family activities then they were then, I am not really sure if that is true, but that is what it seems like to me. For one reason or another, participation in these social justice organizations has really fallen. I just saw a study in the Dubois Review (printed at Harvard University) of wealthy black people and their membership in various organizations and their philanthropy and having a very small sample of people, the author of the study reported that they almost never belonged to the NAACP. They almost never belonged to any kind of social justice organization. They tend to give money to their colleges, and they almost never went to a historically black college. So they maybe are active in the alumni association at the University of Michigan, let's say, or Berkeley, but almost never do you hear about them giving money to Morehouse or Spellman or Howard. For one reason or another, it is interesting, you ought to track through the data and look at it. It's really interesting to look at one slice of Black America and their disengagement from the kind of social justice activity that they used to be engaged in. They now tend to be mostly engaged in social service activity and there is a big difference between social service and social justice. I am very fond of saying if Black people have social justice, they don't need social service.

David Thigpen: Are you optimistic that the movement can come back to life, that there will more people engaged, do you see any reason to think that we might be moving in that direction again?

Julian Bond: I am a lifelong optimist. I believe against all the evidence, that things can get better. In part because over my lifetime, I have seen them get better. When I was in college I couldn't go to some restaurants, I couldn't work at some kinds of jobs all that is open to me now. So I have seen change for the better. I am convinced that if we put our shoulders to the wheel collectively, if we work hard enough, it we engage in mass action, if we engage in collations, and if we engage in litigation, we will be okay.

David Thigpen: Are all those the sort of things that came together in the 1960s?

Julian Bond: Yes but we have to do them in large numbers. I was looking at the website of one of the four organizations that sponsored the march and their activities planned for the 50th Anniversary celebration seemed to me entirely aimed at entrepreneurship. Off course everybody is in favor of entrepreneurship, I want there to be more Black businesses, I want there to be Black people who own these businesses, but you can't build a social movement on that alone. And so it was disappointing to see that as the sole focus of this organization at this anniversary.

David Thigpen: Do you think that part of the puzzle we don't have catalytic personalities that can pull together a movement?

Julian Bond: No I don't think that's as big of a problem as we seem to think it is because we are not going to have another Martin Luther King, at least not in my life time. If it does happen it will be news to me. I wish we did, but I don't think it is going to happen. And I don't think we can... put on his shoulders all the success of the 1960s, so on. There were many, many other people doing this, and he played an important role, but charismatic leadership alone will not change the agenda, change the activities that we ought to be engaged in. It's extremely helpful, and when it appears its necessary, but it ought not to be depended on the way we over depend on it.