Julian Bond, former NAACP board chairman, veteran state legislator and seasoned civil rights strategist, Sept. 5 chronicled the path of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement from defiance of die-hard segregationists a half-century ago to current battles to sustain political and economic gains.
To the 73-year-old founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking from personal experience, said the victories won in the 1960s have resulted in uneven gains.
“The task ahead is enormous,” the man regarded as a Civil Rights Movement elder statesman told the crowd of 300 in a keynote speech for a University of Maryland Civil War to Civil Rights symposium at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.
Blacks are facing hurdles “equal to, if not greater than, the task already done,” Bond said in remarks delivered in observance of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
Looking back on that period of often-bloody resistance, Bond said, “1963 was a year filled with white violence,” Bond said, “the assassination of NAACP Field Secretary Edgar Evers in Mississippi, the suppression of the children’s march in Birmingham, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy.”
Planning for the 1963 march, tempered by concern about the threat of violence, also reflected the segregationist grip on city of Washington, D.C., he said. Because Washington, D.C. was under federal control, local residents had no control in the city’s preparation for the March of Washington.
“In 1963 the people of Washington had even less control of their government than they do today,” Bond said. “The all-white Board of Commissioners (which governed Washington, D.C.) were terrified of the prospects of an unruly and probably boisterous and rowdy mob of angry black people descending on the city.”
The government decided to prepare for an onslaught of arrests and physical violence by freeing up hundreds of hospital beds, scheduling thousands of officers to work overtime, scheduling local judges on standby, evacuating hundreds of inmates to clear jail space, shutting down government offices and closing liquor stores “for the first time since prohibition.”
Despite the fears, he noted, 250,000 gathered peacefully on the National Mall on August 28, 1963 and no violent incidents were reported.
For the then-23-year-old, the event was not without light moments. Bond recalled serving a soft drink to Black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and getting an unusual response. Davis “held out his hand like a pistol,” made the sound of a gun and told Bond, “thanks kid.”
As for the present, Bond challenged those who feel our nation has reached a “racial nirvana.” Obama’s victory could not end “structural inequities or racist attitudes,” said Bond, “but it has fomented them.”
“Obama is to the Tea Party as the moon is to werewolves,” and the crowd broke out into laughter.
The elder statesman who looks at the accomplishments of the past with great pride said
With the increasing diversity of our country and tough economic climate, Bond said the United States needs to provide “the best schools, the best healthcare, the best jobs and the strongest protection against discrimination we possibly can.”
The audience was a mix of activists, artists, academicians and students of all races. Many said they were moved by Bond’s comments.
“[He] inspired me to take a step back and realize what my ancestors did and encouraged me to go out and do what I can, “said Lenace Edwards, a junior at the University of Maryland. “It lit a fire in me to say the work’s not done.”
Others said they the current generation of young people takes past gains for granted.
“I went to the march [on Washington anniversary] on Saturday and it was lacking a common theme. I watched people who were texting and talking on their phones, it was lacking unity,” said Haitian-American Ketly Bateau, 59, who immigrated to the U.S. during the civil rights movement. “No fault to the young people but they don’t know struggle, they think struggling is not being able to text.”