For more than 50 years, Julian Bond has been a human rights and civil rights leader. In 1960 he co-founded the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bond spent 20 years in the Georgia Legislature after first being denied a seat because of his outspoken views against the Vietnam War. For 11 years, until 2010, he was chairman of the NAACP. He remains on the organization's board and teaches civil rights history at American University in Washington and the University of Virginia.
The Root contributor Joe Davidson spoke with Bond about the nation's political climate and the role for the NAACP today. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
The Root: What is your assessment of the current political situation in the United States?
Julian Bond: It's poisonous. The rise of the Tea Party and their ugliness consolidated a lot of [malignant] intentions in the political process and gave additional strength to the right wing or the hard right wing, and as you see, they helped the Republicans take back [the House].
TR: How would you assess President Obama's performance?
JB: I think he's done very well. And I don't think the general public has a good appreciation for what he and the Democrats have done. Passing health care, no matter what you think of it, this is a marvelous achievement, and something that has been tried for years. I think where he has fallen down is in the failure to explain, as well as you know he can, what he's doing, what he's thinking, what he wants the public to do, how he wants people to understand what he's done. But yet overall, I think he's done a wonderful job.
TR: Some Congressional Black Caucus members criticize him for not targeting specific economic-relief programs to the black community.
JB: I'm with them 100 percent. You don't have to be the black president to do that. You have to say, here's a segment of our population that is suffering out of proportion to its numbers, and they need some special attention. But the difference [between] being a congressman and being president is massive. Your interests are different. Your responsibilities are different. Your constituencies are different. So I think members of the caucus need to understand that difference.
TR: Now that we have the caucus and black people running major corporations and lots of black elected officials, what is the role of the NAACP at this period in history?
Of course circumstances are different. Of course this is a different country. But still, its mission is almost exactly the same. And to believe that because a black man is president, or we have a black woman as head of Xerox [Ursula M. Burns], that we don't need this organization is a serious mistake.
We always need some kind of watchdog, some kind of monitor, and that's what the NAACP and these other civil rights organizations are. They are monitors. They are watching the country, watching what happens to people of color, and where people of color are at risk, these organizations step forward. We'd be a poorer country if we didn't have them.
TR: You said the mission is the same. How would you define that mission?
JB: The mission is fighting white supremacy, however it manifests itself. It manifests itself in different ways. You're less likely to see [white supremacist] behavior now than 50 or 100 years ago, but it's still there, and as long as it's there, you need somebody to fight it, and that's what the NAACP does.
TR: The NAACP now has the youngest board chairman and the youngest president in its history. Correct?
TR: Is the torch being passed to the younger generation?
JB: Yes, it is. The fastest segment of membership growth in the NAACP is college-age young people. At every board meeting, we charter new branches, and typically if we charter eight new branches, six of them are youth chapters or revived youth chapters that are starting again. If you go to any NAACP convention, you see these enormous numbers of young people engaged in the organization, taking leadership positions. We're the only civil rights organization that reserves a seat on our board of directors for young people.
TR: We have a black president, and yet right-wing opposition is more vigorous than it has been in years. Where do black aspirations fit on this national stage?
JB: Black people's aspirations are American aspirations. We want to be able to provide safety and security for our families. We want what everybody wants. And the fact that we are so frustrated in achieving it, and a portion of black Americans have yet to come close to achieving it, is some mark of how difficult the task has been so far and [how] much more we yet have to do.
Joe Davidson is a columnist for the Washington Post.