Julian Bond talks to Michael Shure

On the anniversary of the Selma march and ‘Bloody Sunday,’ Julian Bond reflects on today’s battle for racial equality

Michael Shure: We sit here today, the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. Tell me about that day for Julian Bond.

Julian Bond: It was a magic day. I was not in Selma on that day, but I was here in Atlanta. My job was to publicize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the things they did, and to let the people in the field know what was going on and to summon them to do something about it.

The Selma march, the fact that the images went worldwide, how much of an effect did that have on the work that you all were doing on the ground?

It had a tremendous effect. It's almost immeasurable. You can't tell, because here are these ordinary people, innocent people doing nothing at all walking down the street. Bam, bam, bam, these policemen jump up on them, beat them in this horrific way. And all of a sudden, the world sees it in ways the world could not see such things before. So it was just a magic transformation in the way people learn these things.

You wanted to get the vote. That's a tangible thing. Is there in civil rights today that same goal, that tangible goal, or is it still elusive?

It's a tangible goal to get the story told and get it told quickly, get it told strongly, get it told fairly, let people know about it in ways they couldn't know as quickly as they could know before. Now the world can see this thing happening in ways the world couldn't see it before.

Ferguson seemed very disorganized in the way they responded to both the actual event and the grand jury and then the Justice Department. Is there a vacuum of leadership in black America and civil rights America?

I don't think there's a vacuum of leadership. I think there's a vacuum of organization, and these are not quite the same thing. In Ferguson, the leadership was there. It was mobilizing people. It was saying, "Let's do something about this. Let's raise some hell about this." Today things are not happening as quickly, and they're not put together as quickly as they were then.

If today somebody said, "We're going to make Julian Bond the de facto head of Ferguson response" after it had happened, what would you have done differently?

I would have organized people to march or protest in a particular way, in a particular direction. I'd have them saying, "We're all gonna knock on these doors. We're gonna make this noise. We're going to do this thing right here. We're gonna be a machine moving and yelling and screaming and making noise." And that is the difference I would make.

‘I think, ‘My Lord, what is it? Do these kids ever learn anything? … Where’s this ugliness come from? … Why are they acting like such idiots?’’

Julian Bond

We look back at the civil rights movement as students of it and people who weren't even there. We see people like you, like John Lewis, of course like Martin Luther King. But when we look today, we see very often Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The young leaders, where are they?

They're around. You look at the people who are the dreamers, who mobilize the sit-in at the Florida State Conference. That's youth leadership. That's raising hell. That's making a lot of noise. And they're gonna make it again.

And is the raising hell working?

It is. It's not working as well as it might, but give them some time. They'll give you some hell.

We all see the video of these fraternity brothers at Oklahoma State singing that song. We all react a certain way. Do you react in a particularly deflated way when you see that?

I think, "My lord, what is it? Do these kids ever learn anything? Have they learned anything at all? Where did they learn this? Where's this ugliness come from?" It's scary to me that these young men, who you expect more from or I expect more from. They are college students, after all. Why aren't they better trained? Why aren't they better educated? Why are they acting like such idiots?

Can you answer any of those questions?

None. No, I can't imagine why they behave in the way they do.

I thought these things were not gonna happen again. I thought this was done. And when I see it and learn that it's not done, that it's the same bunch of idiots doing the same idiotic stuff over and over again, I just say, "What the hell is going on?"

Selma has come to mind for so many people because of the film. But at the time, Selma was a culmination of something, wasn't it?

Yes. It was a culmination of a movement made up of many people working hard every day. Pushing the needle faster and faster and faster and faster. I don't think you quite have that anymore.

And do you think we don't have that anymore because they got the vote? There's not one thing? For example, gay marriage — as soon as you get gay marriage, it becomes a bit more nebulous what they're fighting for. With the vote, they got the vote, and then it becomes scattered.

No, I don't think it's that at all. I think it's that the things that we still haven't got, we haven't learned how to demand them in ways we demanded these earlier things, these earlier appeals. And when we do learn how to do it, we'll be right back in line again.

Michael Sure with Julian Bond

Let's talk about the film "Selma." What do you think of the movie?

I thought it could have been better than it was. People in the civil rights movement like myself don't like any movie about the civil rights movement. I don't care who made it, who's in it, who the stars are — we don't like any of them. And this one I particularly didn't like the portrayal of President [Lyndon] Johnson, which I thought was unfair to him. In this regard, he was a champion. And he was not portrayed as a champion. He was portrayed as sort of a nit, and he wasn't a nit. He was a real, real, real good guy.

What presidents aside from Johnson have had positive influences in recent history on civil rights?

Oh, gee, it's hard to say, because none of them has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on civil rights. If you take away President Johnson, there's not a president who's been way up here, in my estimation. Johnson is way up here, but none of the others are.

Let's talk about President Barack Obama, then. President Obama walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named for a Confederate general and an original member of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Tell me what that felt like seeing that happen on the 50th anniversary.

Well, I watched it on TV like most people did. And I've walked across that bridge myself several times and hope to walk across it again. And I was happy to see it. I think it meant something positive that the black president of the United States has walked across this bridge … This bridge was named after a segregationist. And now a black president has walked across this bridge. And suddenly, part of that is erased, at least in my mind, so that's a step forward.

Barack Obama. How do you view him through the prism of civil rights?

Well, he's had a difficult time because he's got a Congress that has said, "No, no, no," to almost everything he wants to do. So no matter what it is he tries to do, he can't do it because the Republican Congress just says, "No, no, no," to everything he does. 

In the past you have talked about the tea party as being essentially racist. Do you still believe that?

Oh, sure. Yes, absolutely. And they know it too.

And what has their effect been on race relations in the country?

It's been bad because they're a negative element. They are taking their negativity and applying it to the American political system, and that's just not a good outcome for us. It's not a good thing for the country. It doesn't signify that we're going to rise up. In fact, it makes us fall down.

And do you compare them, or is it possible to even to compare them to what you faced 50 years ago?

No, no. They're not quite the same thing. They're wrongheaded people doing wrongheaded things, but I wouldn't compare them to the Ku Klux Klan that I faced.

I want to call your attention to a letter that you wrote also 50 years ago. Julian Bond, Democratic candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives. In it, you say that you want to talk about housing, getting better jobs, getting better pay and improving schools. Has that gotten better?

Yes, the Georgia legislature and the state of Georgia is a better place than it was when I wrote that letter. It's not a perfect place — far and from it — but it's a better place now than it was then.

So we're not postracial in this country?

No, we're not postracial. We're better.

Can you recount for me any interaction you had with King that kind of inspired you to keep doing this?

Well, I can't say we were best friends or buddies. But I had some association with him. I remember one time he and I were walking across the Morehouse College campus, and I said to him, "Doc, how you doing?" His friends called him "Doc." He said, "Julian, I'm not doing well." He said, "Unemployment is high. Racism's everywhere. Segregation's immovable." He said, "I feel awful. I have a nightmare." I said, "Doc, turn that around. Try 'I have a dream.'" 

So really it came from you. You were the "I have a dream" guy?

I wouldn't say that. 

But what brought you to the movement in the first place? What made Julian Bond wake up one day and say, "I want to put myself in harm's way and make it better?"

I was going to Morehouse College in Atlanta. I was sitting in a drugstore having lunch. A student came up to me and said, "Have you seen this?" Held up a newspaper. Newspaper said, "Greensboro students sit in for third day." Said, "Have you seen this?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "What about it?" I said, "It's great. It's good." He said, "Don't you think it'll happen here?" I said, "It's gonna happen here." "Don't you think we ought to make it happen here?" I said, "What do you mean, 'we'?" He said, "You take this side of the drugstore, and I'll take the other." And we did. And we started the movement.

That was in Atlanta.


And then you were hooked?

I was hooked. I couldn't turn back.

‘[Martin Luther King] said, ‘I feel awful. I have a nightmare.’ I said, ‘Doc, turn that around. Try ‘I have a dream.’’’

Julian Bond

You see the LGBT community as fighting for civil rights too, and you are a proud supporter of them. What draws you to that fight?

Well, because I worked in the civil rights movement with many gay people, many lesbians. They helped me, and why should I not help them? They helped me push the needle forward. I'm eager to push the needle forward for them. 

What would you say to counterparts in the gay rights movement about what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong?

I don't know what they're doing wrong, but they're doing something so right. It's just amazing the speed with which the movement for gay rights has come to the country. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Good for you. Keep going, brothers. Keep going, sisters. Keep at it.

Fifty years from now, Julian Bond, where do you imagine, when you close your eyes, race relations will be in the country?

I'm not really sure. Where I hope they'll be is people will be saying, "Well, we've come forward more than I thought we would." I hope somebody will be saying that. And if they say that, that'll be OK with me.

So that'll be a hundred years from Selma.


Somebody says, "What do you want Julian Bond to be remembered for when it comes to civil rights?" What would you say?

I want people to say, "He was a race man." That's a man who cared about his race and wanted to help him as much as he could.

You've said, "History is race" not "Race is history."


What does that mean?

It means history is race because we're always learning history. We're always reading history. We're always seeing it, what's happening in history. And we want to look at it more and see what's happening.

And you're a race man?

Yeah, and I'm a race man.


Julian Bond

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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