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April 3, 2003

King’s dream remains unfulfilled, Julian Bond says

The three-part message of Dr. Martin Luther King — racial justice, economic equality and world peace — continues to beguile today’s America, according to a prominent civil rights activist.

Before a packed house of some 800 in Alumni Hall, Julian Bond, former Georgia state congressman and current chairman of the NAACP, spoke March 26 on “Civil Rights: Then and Now,” at the first public lecture for Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

In a country that celebrates King’s birthday and Black History Month as “annual occasions for orgies of racial self-congratulation,” the focus of today’s civil rights movement is fuzzy and ill-placed, Bond said.

“For most of us, Martin Luther King is little more than an image seen in grainy, black-and-white television film taken in Washington 40 years ago, the gifted preacher who had a dream. But Dr. King was more than that, and the movement more than Martin Luther King.”

King’s dream of a country where people are judged by the content of their character and not their skin color remains a dream today, he said.

In a rousing address interrupted several times by applause, Bond chastised some U.S. leaders by name, including President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the country in general for losing sight of “America’s twin towers — freedom and justice.”

“Too often we wait for others to sanction our protests or lead us. Yesterday’s movement was a people’s movement. It produced leaders of its own. It relied not on the noted but the nameless, not the famous but the faceless.”

The civil rights movement that Bond cut his teeth on promoted a war on poverty instead of today’s war on the poor, he said. Patriotism meant informed disobedience, not blind allegiance. “Those were the days,” Bond added with mock nostalgia, “when the president picked the Supreme Court and not the other way around.”

Calling the war in Iraq an unnecessary war without rationale, “supported by a multi-national new coalition of the billing,” Bond said the economic consequences will be devastating for America’s poor.

“When Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam in 1965, he said he was revolted at the hypocrisy of America’s claims for freedom overseas when blacks enjoyed few freedoms here at home. ‘The pursuit of widened war,’ he said in 1966, ‘has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens at the front and at home.’ How sadly true those words ring today,” Bond said.

The civil rights activist condemned the post-Sept. 11 treatment in this country of Arabs and Muslims, and the lip service paid by President Bush in condemning hate crimes and discrimination.

“With the events of Sept. 11, we realize we have not yet achieved either of our nation’s two stated goals” — victory against tyranny abroad and against racism at home. “Just as this enemy — terrorism — is more difficult to identify and punish, so is discrimination a more elusive target today,” he said.

Attacks on affirmative action by the Bush administration, judicial nominees who are hostile to the basic principles of civil rights law and enforcement, and support for racially discriminating schools are all symptoms of a ongoing ideological war bent on reversing the gains of the civil rights movement.

‘There is a right-wing conspiracy, and it is operating out of the United States Department of Justice. And the Office of the White House Counsel. And the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education. And the United States Commission on Civil Rights. They and others have set their gun-sights not only on affirmative action, but also on Title IX, the 30-year-old law guaranteeing gender equity in higher education.”

That conspiracy is buoyed by funders, groups and activists, often fronted by black hustlers and hucksters, who provide money, motivation and the movement behind school vouchers, attempts to reapportion minorities out of office and attacks on equity, he said, promoting the politics of anxiety and resentment in an imagined victimhood.

“Their enemies are legion,” Bond said, “women and minorities who don’t know their place, an expansive culture free from the suppression of the past and an America growing more diverse every day.”

Affirmative action is being attacked not because it has failed, but because it has succeeded, Bond said. “The opponents keep telling us that affirmative action carries a stigma that attaches to all blacks — as if none of us ever felt any stigma in the days before affirmative action.”

Why don’t affirmative action detractors make the same argument about whites who were admitted to Harvard or Yale because their fathers were alumni? he asked.

“Most of our elite professions have long been the near-exclusive preserve of white men. I seriously doubt if a single one of these men is suffering low self-esteem because he knows his race and gender helped him win his job.”

Detractors also claim to be colorblind, Bond said. “They’re all colorblind all right — they’re blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.”

Bond lambasted the Republican Party for “playing the race card in election after election,” appealing “to that minority of Americans who have rejected democracy and equality.

“In coded racial appeal after appeal, [Republicans] drape themselves in the Confederate flag, they embrace Confederate leaders as patriots and they wallow in a victim mentality. They preach racial neutrality and practice racial division. Their idea of equal rights is the American and Confederate flags flying side by side. Their idea of freedom is the right to do what they want.”

And the Bush administration chooses “to use Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as human shields against any criticism of its record on civil rights,” Bond charged. “We have a president who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged.”

Nor are the Democrats, with few exceptions, much better, he added, saying their goal is “lifting all boats. The truth is that while a few sail on in luxury liners, most of us are crammed in the cargo hold.

“In the last national election, one political party was shameless and the other was spineless.”

As for the future, Bond said all Americans have a role in promoting civil rights. “It is a serious mistake — both tactical and moral — to believe this is a fight that must be waged by black Americans alone,” he said. “Black, yellow, red and white — all are needed in this fight. All of us are implicated in the continuation of inequality — it will require our common effort to bring it to an end.”

Following Bond’s speech, Provost James V. Maher awarded him a commemorative medal in recognition of the first public event for the Center on Race and Social Problems.

—Peter Hart

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