Civil rights leader Julian Bond said he views the presidency of Barack Obama as a vindication of the efforts of generations. “It means the work we’ve been doing since 1909 has been worthwhile,” Bond said, referring to the year the NAACP was founded. “We were talking about the headline in the Onion after Obama’s election, ‘Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job,’ but it is a vindication of the work done by all these groups over all these years.”
Bond was speaking to a packed house in the Petersen Automotive Museum, with a generous assortment of Lamborghinis and Bugattis accenting the scene. Moderator Warren Olney, host of the shows “Which Way, LA?” and “To The Point” on KCRW, asked Bond why he thought the term “racism” had become an occasional punch line among some of the younger generation. Bond said he found it perplexing. “Does it mean that, if someone says something uncomfortable to you that might involve race, you can say ‘racism’ and make a joke?” Bond asked. “Then I don’t get the joke. Maybe I’m dense.” But, he added, “I was host of Saturday Night Live, so I know a joke when I see it.”
Asked to name his favorite moment while hosting Saturday Night Live in 1977, Bond pointed to a routine he performed with Garrett Morris. “We did a skit called ‘Black Perspectives in the News,’” Bond recalled. The skit concerned I.Q. tests and racial differences in outcomes. “I said, ‘That’s because light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.’ And he was darker-skinned than I am. And he did this marvelous double-take, and said, ‘Say what?’ And I said, ‘Everybody knows it. Light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.’ And he said, ‘I see we’ve run out of time.’”
Asked about the state of identity politics today, Bond broke in skeptically. “What does that mean, ‘identity politics’?” he asked. “The Tea Party is identity politics. Some people find it objectionable when people of color band together in their own interests. And somehow that’s thought to be hostile to the American way. But they don’t think the same about white people coming together in their own interests.”
Bond rejected the notion that race was a determinant of political loyalties. “Herman Cain” – the Godfather’s Pizza CEO turned Republican presidential contender – “went to my college,” Bond said. “Herman Cain is a black man. I’m not going to vote for Herman Cain.”
Bond said he was mostly satisfied with Obama’s job performance but worried about what he saw as extreme vitriol among Republican voters. He averred that opposition to Obama could be based purely on policy but said that often it seemed to be at heart about race. “I think he faces an unusual amount of hostility from the other party,” Bond said. “Is it because he’s from Chicago? Is it because he’s tall and thin? No, it’s because he’s black.”
As for Obama’s shortcomings, Bond was accepting. “Yes, he’s disappointed me,” Bond said. “And I have to say he will not be the first president to do that, nor will he be the last.”
Bond began his work in civil rights when he helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, but one of his earliest encounters with a civil rights leader was while he was still in college. Bond attended Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, in the late 1950s, and he was one of eight students in the only class Martin Luther King Jr. ever taught. King was a co-instructor of a philosophy course, and Bond said that King could recite passages in textbooks from memory. “He had wonderful recall,” Bond said. But Bond’s memories of the class didn’t go too much further. “I can’t remember a thing,” Bond admitted.
Asked by Olney about the courage it took to integrate lunch counters in the South, Bond downplayed the effort. “I’m not sure if it took a tremendous amount of courage to sit at a lunch counter,” Bond said. The year was 1963, and the sit-in he led at a City Hall cafeteria in the South got him arrested and jailed. He was sent to court, where the defense lawyer to his left, a legendary civil rights defender, happened to have fallen asleep at the moment Bond was deciding how to plead. The lawyer to his right was young and inexperienced but had clear advice: “Not guilty, you fool.”
In 1965, Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives but wasn’t seated because of comments he’d made in opposition to the Vietnam War. After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in his favor, Bond joined the legislature and, after a few years, managed to be accepted by many of his former foes. “Politicians are very rational,” Bond said. “When it became clear to my colleagues in the house that I was a vote, then they began to pay attention, to woo me when I could help them. And in turn I tried to woo them when they could help me.”
When the microphone was handed to the audience, question topics ranged from same-sex marriage to bugging by the FBI. Bond said that he wasn’t shocked to discover, years later, that SNCC had been subject to audio surveillance by the government. “We were always right on the edge of paranoia, but even paranoids have enemies,” Bond said. “Andy Young used to say, ‘Our offices are recording studios, and J. Edgar Hoover is the engineer.’”
Bond spoke out strongly in favor of same-sex marriage and of civil rights for gays and lesbians. Bond stayed away from the funeral of Coretta Scott King because it was being held in a church hostile to gay rights; in response to a question about that, Bond said he had no regrets. “Mrs. King was a strong supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage,” he said. “The idea that she would be buried in this church was abhorrent to me.”
When an audience member asked about continuing instances of race-based crime and violence, Bond stressed that a community as a whole must act. “It ought not be the NAACP’s job to do it,” Bond said. “When we see an evil, a wrong, an injustice, we ought to do something about it. Because if we don’t, and it happens again, we have only ourselves to blame.”
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.