Julian Bond: Obama's Election Has Many Meanings

November 14, 2008

November 14, 2008 — University of Virginia history professor and civil rights leader Julian Bond has several things in common with president-elect Barack Obama.

Both were state legislators for several years before running an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both gave stirring speeches at the Democratic National Convention that launched them into the national spotlight. Both eventually mounted a presidential campaign — though with wildly different results.

Obama's 2008 victory came more than 40 years after Bond was first elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1965, and much has changed in the intervening years. Bond has had a front-row perspective on many of those changes, from his personal leadership in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to his studies as a civil rights historian, to the dozens of interviews he has conducted with prominent black leaders for U.Va.'s Explorations in Black Leadership project, to his leadership as chairman of the NAACP since 1998 — a position which led to the first of three meetings with Obama.

Bond reflected on how things have changed in a recent conversation, excerpted below.

UVA Today:
What seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement led to Obama's election?

In the modern-day Civil Rights Movement, by which I mean the movement of 1960s, the most important moments would have been the beating at the Selma bridge and the subsequent passage in Congress, and signing into law by President Johnson, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That absolutely transformed the politics of America. It gave black people in the South access to the franchise, which they had been absolutely denied in the previous hundred-odd years. It created a great shift in Southern politics, as resistant white Democrats fled to the Republican Party, and it made the Republican Party the party of choice for white Southerners. And it enabled black people to begin electing other black people to public office.

I got elected to the Georgia Legislature in the afterglow of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Literally dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of others followed in the wake.

So, those collected events — the march on the bridge, the beating on the bridge and the passage of the Voting Rights Act — those things are the significant moments in the modern-day Civil Rights Movement that created Barack Obama.

UVA Today:
You were quoted previously as saying that you didn't think the election of an African American to president would come to pass in your lifetime.

No, I had no indication that it would or could. I had seen Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton run for president. I ran myself in 1976 in a spectacularly unsuccessful campaign. But I had no indication that something like this could happen. I didn't think white Americans would vote for a black candidate in any appreciable numbers, and, as a consequence, there was no way this could happen. So, it was not until Obama won Iowa, and I could see that in the whitest of American states, a black candidate could come out triumphantly, that it began to be possible to me.

UVA Today:
So, do you think America has changed more than you had given it credit for?

Bond: Yes I do. I don't want to overemphasize the change, but I think to ignore it is to blind yourself to the reality of what happened. A divide that existed between the political fortunes of black and white Americans has just been erased, and I guess it's been erased for all time.

I think this will happen again, perhaps not in the immediate future, but it will happen again. Again it will happen with a woman candidate. The things we used to think could not happen, have happened. And once having happened, they'll happen again

UVA Today:
Could you summarize what you think Obama becoming president means for young black Americans?

Well, first it means for their parents, they don't have to lie when they say, "You can be anything." Now they are telling the truth. The possibilities are just endless. ... Not everybody can do everything, but you can do this, and you can do much more.

I think it's going to make a great change in black America. People whose ambitions may have been limited to, say, the McDonald's counter or some kind of menial job requiring little or no education, are going to see what can happen if you prepare yourself, if you make yourself ready.

Not everybody has to go to Harvard or Harvard Law School. Not everybody has to be in the upper atmosphere of American education. But you now see what happens when you are trained and ready and experienced. Then great things open up to you.

I think younger black people are going to take that lesson and prepare themselves in ways we've not seen them prepare themselves before. And I think parents, of course, will take that lesson and say to their children, "Look what happens when you bear down, study hard; when you pull your pants up and you don't walk around with droopy drawers; when you act like you are somebody, that you think you're somebody, then other people will think so too."

UVA Today:
Is there anything people shouldn't take from this election?

I think they are probably some white Americans who voted for him enthusiastically, who thought to themselves, "If I vote for him and he wins, racial discrimination and prejudice will have vanished in America, and his election will be proof of that." I think that's just 2,000 percent over-emphasis on simply casting a vote and simply electing this person of African descent. It's a signal moment in America. It's a great moment for all of us. It's a great moment for the country. We demonstrated something to ourselves and we demonstrated something to others.

But we haven't eliminated racial discrimination, and we ought not take his election as proof of that. This is proof that we're a better country now than we were the day before. But you can't overemphasize it and make it into something it's not.

UVA Today:
Does Obama remind you of any particular black leader from the past?

He did remind me of someone, and that was Roy Wilkins, who was a longtime head of the NAACP. The points of similarity among them are that both were mild-mannered people. I never heard Roy Wilkins shout or yell. I heard him speak a number of times; he never raised his voice. He almost spoke in a monotone. He always was deliberate in speech, deliberate in what he said.

They're different in political outlook because I'm not sure Roy Wilkins would have opposed the Iraq war or would have even engaged it at all.

UVA Today:
What about from the standpoint of political presentation?

[Obama] didn't try to hide his race, but his race wasn't the basis upon which he was running for office. ... But it's very much a part of him, a part of him he's not ashamed of. So, he's not pushing it to the side. He's saying, in effect, "This is me. This is my story. This is my biography. This is where I come. This is what shaped me. And I'm an American like all the rest of you."

Of course, he had trouble convincing people of that. Some people today believe he was foreign-born, and that he's a Muslim. There are people that will go to their deaths thinking that he is a Muslim, no matter how many times he says he's not. He found a way of presenting himself [that's] not an adopted pose, or contrived situation. It's just the way he is. He thinks of himself as a biracial American.

UVA Today: A recent article in Mother Jones magazine notes how your speech to the 1968 Democratic National Convention was received with similar enthusiasm to that generated by Obama's speech at the 2004 convention, which launched his national political career. Have you reflected on the parallels between your lives?

There are some parallels, but there are so many differences, as well. Both of us made a mark at a convention. Both of us got elected to the state legislature. Both of us tried to get elected to Congress; both of us lost. And that's where the parallel ends.

Although I did run for president 1976, as I said earlier, it was spectacularly unsuccessful and really went nowhere. If you follow Obama's life and my life from the time we both ran for the Congress and lost, there are great divergences. Part of the differences came because of where we lived. I lived in Georgia and, beyond getting elected to Congress, there was no hope that I could get elected to any higher office than that. With him, the reach for the U.S. Senate was a big reach but it was possible, and of course he proved it could be done.

UVA Today:
Many, if not all, of those differences are a reflection of society's changing attitudes toward race from 1976 to today.

Bond: Surely. He enjoyed the benefit of changing times and changing attitudes, which I did not. Now, whether or not I could have over time, we don't know.

UVA Today: Do you reflect back on how things could have gone differently?

I tend not to look back and reflect. I look forward.

I do have a basement full of bumper stickers from '76 that I'm trying to get rid of.

— By Brevy Cannon