KW Exclusive: Julian Bond talks civil rights, black leadership

Civil Rights leader Julian Bond is a chairman emeritus for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Photo courtesy of Kent State University.

Civil Rights leader Julian Bond is a chairman emeritus for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Photo courtesy of Kent State University.

Bruce Walton

Julian Bond, civil rights leader and former congressman, who also walked with and was taught by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, will visit Kent State Thursday, January 22 where he will present “From Civil Rights to Civil War: The history of the racial struggle in the U.S.” Opinion editor Bruce Walton spoke with Bond Saturday over the phone about civil rights, the current race issues in America and leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. Click here for the full audio of the interview.

Q: What is “civil rights” to you personally?

A: Civil rights are the ability to live a free life. That’s as succinctly as I can think to say it. If you have civil rights, you have the ability to be a free person in the world in which you live. And if you don’t have civil rights, you are not a free person.

Q: Can you tell me your thoughts on the latest Black Lives Matter movement going across the nation?

A: It’s interesting to see it occur, and I’ve heard complaints about it that it’s leaderless. Of course it’s not leaderless; you can’t have this many people marching and protesting and thought without some leadership figures directing them and saying, “let’s do this on this day and at this place at this time.” So I think it’s a wonderful movement. I just wish more people were engaged in it and more people were doing what they do.

Q: What more can people do than march and sing, and be in the way of society so they can’t be ignored? Is that all we need?

A: No, no, you need much more than that. For one thing, everybody needs to be sure they are registered as they vote on Election Day. That’s something that everybody should be doing whatever the provocation, whatever the movement, whatever the activity they’re engaged in. If they’re not registering to vote and voting, they’re not really doing an important thing that they could do and should do. So everybody who thinks that this state of murders, of police murders is wrong should be engaging in registering and voting. That’s not all they should do, but that’s one of the things they have to do. If they’re not doing that they’re really not participating fully.

Q: What do you believe young people and students should know about authority when challenging it isn’t enough?

A: Well they should learn as about it as much as they can. They should learn as much as they can about their local police departments. Who they are, what their names are, what their reputation is, what they’ve done, why they’re so sensitive to criticism, why they believe they should not be criticized. It’s something I can’t imagine myself why that’s so, but it seems to be at burst with criticism and unable to sustain criticism, but I think that we all have to be conscious of the authorities in our communities and do all we can to know as much about them as we can.

Q: Where do you see the Black Lives Matter movement going in the near future? What direction do you think it will start going in?

A: Unfortunately, the police are going to shoot some other black man, an unarmed black man. We’re going to see this pattern repeated and repeated and repeated. So, unfortunately, I think it will recur and recur and recur, and hopefully, it will grow bigger and bigger and bigger and the complaints will get louder and louder and louder.

Q: So you mentioned before that although there had been complaints about the movement that it has been leaderless, but there are in fact leaders. Do you know of any you can name off the top of your head?

A: No. No I don’t, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Q: So if there’s just a mass of lost, scared people feeling the raw emotion of helplessness and just want to do something, if no one truly leads them like how we’ve seen before, what will be the fate of their cause?

A: Well somebody is truly leading them. You cannot have a successful meeting without some leadership figures. And I don’t mean that John Smith or Mary Jones or Archie down the street saying, “Follow me,” but somebody has to be in charge of these groups and somebody is. It’s silly to say they’re leaderless. You can’t have a successful protest without some leadership figure. So obviously there are leadership figures leading these things and good for them.

Q: I’m sure you’ve heard this question before, but what was Dr. King like to you?

A: Well I’m one of the eight people in the world who could say I was a student of Dr. King’s. He taught me at Morehouse College when I was a student there. And I remember one day when class was over, I was walking with him, and I said to him, “Doc,”—His friends called him Doc—I said, “Doc, how are you doing?” He said “Julian, I’m not doing well.” He said, “unemployment is high, racism’s everywhere, segregation seems immovable.” He said, “I feel awful.” He said, “I have a nightmare.” I said “No Doc, turn that around and try ‘I have a dream’. I made that up. He did teach me, he did teach me.

Q: What do you think he would say if he knew there was a national holiday named after him?

A: I think he’d be flattered about it. I think he’d probably think it was much ado about nothing, that he wasn’t the kind of person to sought out these kinds of honors and occasions. But I think he’d be pleased.

Q: I’m sure you’ve heard of the argument of Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, would you want to weigh in on that argument?

A: I think it’s a nonsensical argument. Nobody who says black lives matter is saying white lives don’t matter. That’s an opposition that doesn’t exist. So it’s really silly to talk about these things in this way.

Q: Can you tell me about some of your thoughts on the NAACP office that was bombed last week and somewhat lack of media coverage thereafter?

A: Well it is peculiar. You know the NAACP has been subject to these kinds of attacks all over its years and years and years of existence, so they’re not surprising or new events. For this to happen in Colorado is a relatively new phenomenon for us at the NAACP, but it’s surely an act of terrorism and it’s surprising that the law enforcement officials haven’t really found the guy whom they suspect did this. But we hope they will soon.

Q: Could you find similarities between the movements for Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and other black youths killed in the name of the law and civil rights movement mobilizing after seeing martyrs like Emmett Till and others?

A: Well, there are similarities and of course differences as well. You know, I was, I think just a year older than Emmett Till and they were about the same response to Emmett Till as we have to these murders, today, these police murders today. But there was the same concern. The NAACP particularly held meetings all over the country in the wake of Emmett Till’s death and there’s some similarity between those uprisings then and these today.

Q: What was one of the most memorable times in your life and fighting for civil rights and talking about race and facing adversity, what was the most memorable time where at least you were called the n-word?  I know a few times where I was.

A: Well it happened a couple of times for me, it’s something you quickly learn to shuffle off, because if you go crazy every time that happens you’ll be nothing but a crazy person. So I’ve tried to think the person calling me those names is crazy and therefore doesn’t deserve any attention by me.

Q: What are your thoughts on Black History Month? Should there be more focus on not just the good but the bad parts of black history, like the Tuskegee experiments or Jim Crow?

A: Well I think that one way or another that these occasions do try to touch on everything that’s happened in the black world. So I’m not saying that they’re having celebrations of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments but I think there are mentions of the good and the bad, the good things, the bad things that happen, so it’s not simply, “Aren’t we wonderful, aren’t things great?” its more than that.

Q: And my last question for you is what has been your greatest challenge as a politician?

A: I don’t know. There were many great challenges and I’m sure there’ll be more.

Q: Have you also seen the latest film “Selma?”

A: Yes. Saw it twice.

Q: Do you believe they were accurate in the story that you yourself were a part of?

A: No, it’s like all movies. There were historical accuracies, but overall I think people should go see this movie. This is a reminder of the struggles of when the right to register or the right to vote and it reminds us that that struggle is ongoing and still needs to be fought today. So despite some mistakes and errors in the movie, I would urge everybody in the sound of my voice to go see it.

Q: I also understand there have been obvious, numerous other times where black youths have been shot and killed, left for dead by police with similar retaliation of injustice to the perpetrators like the L.A. riots in 1992—

A: Yes these things happen again and again and again and again.

Q: Compared to the 1992 riots for the police brutality that was done then, do you believe our reactions are more peaceful and we have a better focus?

A: Yes I think people are more likely to engage in peaceful protest and they certainly ought to. The propensity to engage in violence is always there because the outrage at these things is so great but it’s good to see, at least for me anyway, that this current outpouring of outrage has generally speaking been peaceful as it should be.

Q: Do you have any understanding or reasoning of why it was different in 2014 than it was in 1992?

A: No I’m not sure why. I’m just happy.

Q: So what can you tell me about your latest book?

A: The latest book I wrote or had anything to do with is called, “Black Leaders on Black Leadership: Conversations with Julian Bond.” And that’s a book written by a colleague of mine named Dr. Phyllis Leffler at the University of Virginia. It’s just come out, it is a study of 50 plus black leadership figures of most of the well-known persons whom I interviewed for this study, and she analyzed the interviews.  And as I said it’s just come out, it’s a wonderful book, which she wrote and buy a copy right now.