Civil Rights Icon Julian Bond Visits Dartmouth

Published: 8/10/2016 9:14:55 AM
Modified: 10/31/2014 12:00:00 AM
Hanover — In the eyes of Julian Bond, icon of the American civil rights movement, our education on social justice in the 1960s shouldn’t consist of only four words — “I have a dream” — and two people, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“Neither those words nor those people are the entirety of the civil rights movement,” Bond said in an interview yesterday, before giving a talk at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art.

The museum is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a special exhibit.

Without a proper civil rights education, “The consequences are an ignorant electorate,” Bond said. “And God knows we have an electorate that is far too ignorant already.”

Next week, voters will decide the fate of the Senate, where Democrats running for re-election have avoided association with President Obama, whose approval rating hovers in the low 40s. But beyond the chief executive’s platform, there’s a personal edge to some people’s criticism of Obama, Bond said.

“I think among the issues is racism, but I’m not saying that every single person that doesn’t like him is racist, because that’s not true. But many of the people who don’t like him are bigots, idiots and racists, and cannot come to grips with the fact that our president is black,” Bond said.

At that afternoon’s event, he said, “No president has been treated this way, ever, in American history.”

Bond made a name for himself in his early 20s, when he helped found the Atlanta branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an activist group that organized voter drives in the South. Later, he served as a Georgia state senator and representative for a total of 20 years, during which time he was the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In 2010, Bond stepped down as chairman of the NAACP, a position he had held for more than a decade.

Now 74, Bond retired a few years ago as a professor at the University of Virginia and lives in Washington, D.C.

Though “this is a much better day than days past,” Bond said, “it’s not the best day, and there’s been fall-back and retreats.”

After having fought for the right to unobstructed voting in the 1960s, Bond decried recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, whom Bond called “an opponent of voting rights.”

With Shelby vs. Holder County, last year’s ruling that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Roberts “has done all he can do to frustrate the right of black people to vote, and it’s a sad commentary on him and on our judicial system that he’s allowed to do so,” Bond said.

The provision annulled by the court had required nine states, mostly in the South, to obtain approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing their election laws. Shortly thereafter, states such as Texas enacted voter identification laws aimed at reducing election fraud that civil rights advocates say is nonexistent. The real goal, opponents say, is to suppress voter turnout among the poor and minorities.

On the protests in Ferguson this summer over the police slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, Bond said he was pleased that the public outcry over law enforcement’s aggressive response to the unrest appeared to have led to the shelving of military-grade equipment.

“I could not believe that a little bitty nothing town like Ferguson had that stuff. Why would they have it? What were they using it for?” he said.

When asked what was the most pressing civil rights issue in the present, Bond said, “This is probably not the most important thing in civil rights, but I’ve been worried that we’ve not paid enough attention to housing segregation, because housing segregation is the root of many of the problems people of color have.

“Every time you discover that at Town X, all the white people live over here, and all the black people live over here, you automatically know that the black people are shut off from the best schools, the best jobs, the best of everything.”

Later that afternoon, he said that the civil rights movement’s failure to act on the housing issue was his greatest regret as an activist and as leader of the NAACP.

Before the talk, Bond met for a private luncheon at the Hanover Inn with student leaders, faculty and the event’s moderator, Dartmouth Vice President for Diversity and Equity Evelynn Ellis.

Meanwhile, students and community members wandered the civil rights exhibit at the Hood Museum, which is open until Dec. 14.

Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties offers a mishmash of styles, from line drawings to impressionistic paintings to pop art to musical performances. Bond, himself, is featured in a photograph, and the exhibit includes a wall where visitors can leave notes on their own experiences.

“My activism is looking my racist, abusive grandfather in the eye and telling him that the ‘n-word’ is not his to say,” said one.

“I lived this. Not so long ago. What we lost in community! How far we still have to come,” said one from a participant in a sit-in at Vassar College in 1969.

On Thursday evening, more than a hundred people crowded into the Hood’s auditorium to see Bond, spilling out into a nearby overflow room.

Bond, reading a prepared speech, commemorated the civil rights movement’s unknown participants.

“Most of the people who made this movement were not the famous. They were the faceless,” he said.

Then, in a rhythmic, fast-paced litany, he named many of those people, all activists who had been killed, imprisoned, beaten or otherwise abused for the cause.

Later, in a question-and-answer session, Bond said it would be “common sense” to pay reparations to civil rights era victims of racist violence.

“I could certainly use it,” he said to laughter and applause.

He also recalled how he first entered the civil rights movement, as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

One day in 1960, a fellow student showed Bond a newspaper story on the sit-ins in segregated Woolworth stores in Greensboro, N.C., and asked him, “What are we going to do about it?”

“Before I could say, ‘What do you mean, we,’ he was saying, ‘You take this side of the cafeteria and I’ll take this side,’ ” Bond said last night.

Soon, the young men found themselves in the segregated cafeteria at Atlanta’s City Hall, pointing out to an employee that a sign in front said, “Open to the public.”

“We don’t mean it,” she said.

“Well, I’m going to stay here until you do,” Bond remembered saying.

That became Bond’s first arrest, and his first appearance in court, where a prominent civil rights lawyer represented him. When the judge asked, “Guilty or not guilty,” Bond looked over to his attorney. The man had fallen asleep.

He looked the other way, to his counsel’s aide, who said in a stage whisper, “Not guilty, you fool!”

Luckily, when he repeated his plea to the judge, he remembered to omit the last two words, Bond said last night.

Liz Blum, of Norwich, attended the talk and remembers working for SNCC, around the same time that Bond did.

Then as a student at Bennington College, Blum went door to door in northeastern Mississippi, getting out the black vote. After her house in Tupelo was firebombed, she moved to Columbus but kept up her registration drive.

Now, the freedoms that the civil rights movement brought to African Americans have led to a backlash, Blum said.

“It feels like there are a lot of people in this country that feel threatened by more black people voting, having more power,” she said on Thursday.

Blum hoped that minorities who felt that recent laws and judicial decisions cramped their access to the vote would take up the activist banner, rather than lose hope and accept it as the new status quo.

Near the end of the talk, an audience member asked whether Bond was worried that the present generation lacked the leadership or the will to re-fight some of the old battles, over voting rights, for instance.

Not particularly, Bond said.

Anyway, he added, he and his contemporaries weren’t gone yet.

“I intend to be around a long time,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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