10 Questions: For Julian Bond On Civil Rights

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com
Last month two critical milestones of this country's civil rights movement had their 50th anniversaries: the integration of Little Rock's Central High School and President Eisenhower's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The month also saw racial divisions and tensions coming to the fore in Jena, La., when the rural town drew demonstrators to its streets to protest the treatment of six black high school students, who were charged with beating a white student after a noose was hung from a tree in the school's yard. Just yesterday House Democrats condemned the Department of Justice for not intervening.

For some perspective on the civil rights movement—its triumphs, its shortcomings, its current standing—we called Julian Bond. Now chairman of the NAACP and a professor of history at the University of Virginia, Bond has been on the forefront of civil rights all his life. As a college student in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early '60s, he founded an organization to integrate the city's theaters, lunch counters and parks. He went on to help found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and later was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives—but it took Supreme Court intervention for him to be seated.

We posed our 10 Questions to him and found that he is still as provocative and challenging as he ever was.

1. You were a very active participant in the civil rights movement. Looking back, what do you think the movement's greatest triumph was? And its failures?

The greatest triumphs were the passage of the '64 Civil Rights Act and the '65 Voting Rights Act. These two laws codified important demands of the then civil rights movement - access to public facilities and access to the franchise.

The movement's greatest failure – and it is immense - is its failure to convince our fellow Americans that racial discrimination remains a severe problem today. A majority of white Americans today by every poll believe black and white Americans have achieved equal status in the country - in fact, many believe equality was achieved by the time Martin Luther King died. And that complaints about inequality are from those who are just ingrates or discontents, who wouldn't be satisfied with anything.

Despite ample evidence that there's an enormous racial divide, people more and more think that if you live in a poor neighborhood, a place like the South Bronx, for example, it's because you want to or because of some character flaw that makes it impossible for you to do any better. There's nothing external about your situation, it's all internal.

2. We spoke recently with Ernie Green, one of the first African American students to attend Little Rock. You were among the first African Americans in Georgia's state legislature. And like the Little Rock integration, you
had to take your case to the federal government when the legislature initially refused to seat you because of your outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. What stands out most in your mind about that time? You were elected in 1965 but didn't take your seat until early 1967...

My aunt, who lived in California, had sent me a little American flag on a silver stand. I thought, Gee this would be great on my desk. And I had it on my desk as all that unfolded around me, and thought, How ironic is this?

The members had filed a petition against me to see whether I was, quote, "qualified." To them being qualified meant being a slavish follower of whatever American policy there was. I had endorsed an anti—Vietnam War statement, which today doesn't seem all that different from what many people say about the war in Iraq. But white Southerners are immensely patriotic, and this was horrendous to many of them.

One of the legislators, Denmark Groover, made a closing speech against me and talked about reapportionment. Reapportionment was what had integrated the Georgia House. He said it had moved "lightness into the darkness and the infamous Mr. Bond."

I remember well sitting in the Supreme Court, and the attorney general of Georgia was arguing that they had the right to throw me out. Judge Byron White interrupted him and said, "Is that all you have? You've come all this way, and that's all you have?" I turned to my lawyer and whispered, "I think we're going to win this."

When I had my first bill in the House, it was for funding for people with sickle cell anemia, which strikes black people mostly. I was nervous and fumbling, and it was Denmark Groover who very kindly asked me the right kinds of questions to help me along. I was overcome.

3. Little Rock High School has now been integrated for 50 years. But a recent HBO documentary showed a self-segregated classroom, whites on one side, black students on the other. What do you think this is about?

This is about the persistence of white privilege; it isn't that the white students at Central High School are evildoers but that their society encourages them to seek distance from people whose skins are of a different color - and black students seek the security of their kind.

At my classes at UVA, I'll sometimes ask, Why do all the white students sit together in the dining hall? No, no, no, that's not happening, they'll say. It's always the black students who are seen as sitting together in the dining hall.

If I go to speak at other schools, I often have a fairly big black audience, and I'll ask how many of them have had white students ask if they can touch their hair. Dozens of hands go up. They're just curious, but this curiosity can be off-putting.

4. What do you see as the most important issue, or issues, facing the African American community today?

The most important is the inability of the American majority to recognize the continuation of discrimination and to assign black/white differences in education, income, life expectancy to black behavior.

If you ask people why these differences persist, they'll say that black people engage in criminal behavior more than whites and therefore are incarcerated at a higher rate, they'll say that family structure leads to out-of-wedlock births — all these reasons that I don't doubt have to do with statistical difference. But they're not exclusive to black people. Whites are the greatest consumers of drugs, for instance, yet blacks are most likely to be arrested for selling drugs.

These problems are seen as black problems, not our problems, they're those people's problems. So the majority of us don't have to do anything about them, we're the innocent parties, we didn't create the problems. But they're American problems.

5. Where does the civil rights movement, if that's the proper term, stand today? It often seems to move in fits and starts, with its leaders being re-active, popping up sporadically, over, say the incident in Jena, or the
recent Bill O'Reilly comments about Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem, rather than being proactive...

Today's civil rights movement is proactive - all over the country civil rights activists are taking steps to eliminate racial differences in housing, police treatment, etc. But it is also reactive - Jena called out for action as did O'Reilly's stupid comments and his refusal to admit he had made a grievous mistake.

The aggrieved parties are always reacting to some outrage or other, and the reaction is generally loud and public. The proactive doesn't receive anywhere near the same attention. You know what is said about your business, the media, "If it bleeds, it leads."

6. We hear about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Are there other leaders within the African American community the media should be paying more attention to?

It is always thus - there were many, many leadership figures when Martin Luther King was alive but he was clearly the best known - because of his genuine character and bravery - but also because America is most comfortable with one leader for black people. Have you ever heard anyone refer to George Bush as the white leader?

If you think about the head of the NAACP, we have an interim head now, but when we get this person he or she will be the head of the largest civil rights organization in the country. If you set up a Google alert with NAACP, you'll see ten stories pop up every day about what the NAACP is doing in local communities. But when you turn on your evening news, you see Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as if these are the only two people who are engaged in this. They are the most visible and the people who must be on the media's rolodexes.

There are dozens and dozens of other figures. The NAACP has a local office in Richmond, Virginia, headed by King Salim Khalfani, an articulate guy who's able to comment on anything in Virginia. He's an activist, and there are people like him all over the country.

7. You were a founding member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an interracial group founded in 1960 based on the successes of the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South. It gained quite a following, and took on all sorts of causes: race, feminism, civil rights, the Vietnam war. Are there any groups like this today that inspire the same passion, the same commitment?

Of course - but they do not rise to public consciousness as SNCC did in the 1960s.

In Mississippi, there's an organization called Southern Echo, which includes older SNCC people who are doing pretty much what they were doing in Mississippi in the '60s.

ACORN has people all over the country, working on slightly different issues, mortgage scams and those kinds of things. They're very SNCC-like. They have paid organizers in various communities who help local people with agitation and advocacy. They can't command the same kind of attention as Reverend Jackson or Reverend Sharpton. Partly, it's different times; we benefited from the danger as a spur to news coverage, the danger of having hoses turned on you or actually being killed.

8. Barak Obama is now a contender for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. There's lots of talk and lots of media stories about whether the country is ready for a black president. What's your take?

I'm not sure - or if we're ready for a female president - and I'm not sure if his or Mrs. Clinton's failure can be solely ascribed to her gender or his race. But it is undeniable that her gender and his race are handicaps for each of them.

Obama's an awfully smart guy with a fascinating background, his parentage, his academic background, and his work background. I can't remember a candidate for president who had worked in community organizing.

9. Recently talk show host Tavis Smiley and PBS sponsored a forum focused on issues that are important to black voters for the Republican candidates. The leading contenders — Giuliani, McCain, Romney, Thompson — didn't attend. What message does this send to American voters, of any or all races?

Don't forget - and almost all have - that the NAACP had a debate for candidates of both parties in July in Detroit - and only one Republican, Tom Tancredo, came to represent his party while all the Democratic candidates came. The Republicans' absence demonstrated their allegiance to their base, which they must assume to be racist, and their failure to have a civil rights policy they can talk about.

10. Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor at Harvard, recently wrote in The New York Times that Jackson, Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration "who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial." Racism is a social evil. But to what extent should African Americans be assigned responsibility for issues plaguing their communities such as teenage moms, absent fathers, gangsta rap, the idea some kids have adopted that to become educated means you're becoming white?

The biggest consumers of gangsta rap are white teenagers; absent fathers is a class-related problem afflicting too many; charges of "acting white" are a tragic example of self-hatred. Why are these behaviors found in every racial group identified as specifically "black" problems?

I think people who think as Patterson does are themselves in denial. I read that piece and remember thinking that he was supposing racial bias had already diminished sufficiently that only these personality traits would remain as a cause of the problems.

There are people who are addressing all these issues, Bill Cosby most prominently.

If you live in a neighborhood with no services, and the police serve as an occupying army, and you're a young kid and you're jerked around, then you have an overwhelmingly negative reaction to them, and you're going to exhibit that. It just seems to me to be wrongheaded to believe there's no connection between the level of racial discrimination and these behaviors. To me there's an almost immediate connection.