The Hatchet interviews: Keynote Commencement speaker Julian Bond

In an interview with The Hatchet in his office at American University, Bond reflected on his career, his controversy and the state of racism today. He said of the many commencement addresses he has given in his career, speaking at GW “is one that will stick in (his) mind.”

The Hatchet: What do you think are your biggest accomplishments?

Julian Bond: I’m not sure … I like to think I haven’t done it yet. I was in the ’60s civil rights movement and that was a tremendous accomplishment. Not because of things I particularly did but because of things we collectively did. We eliminated legal segregation in the United States – a system that had been in place almost 100 years – and we wiped it out.

The Hatchet: You say you knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What was your interaction with him?

Bond: In 1960, he became a familiar figure in the neighborhood where I lived (in Atlanta) and at the school I attended. I went to Morehouse College. And he actually taught a class at Morehouse College . There were eight of us in that class, and so once a week we met with him. It was a seminar on philosophy, and I have to tell you we didn’t learn much philosophy. But we heard him talk about the Montgomery bus boycott, which was then only five years old, and it was a great experience to sit across from this man and hear him talk about the civil rights movement.

The Hatchet: How do you think the world has changed since that time?

Bond: If you go back to the 1960s and you compare it to today, this is a very different world . My horizons were tremendously limited. If I were 20 today, the sky’s the limit for me. I could do anything my skills, my talent, my ambition leads me to. In that sense there have been enormous changes from that day to this. But there’s still barriers.

The Hatchet: What similarities are there between then and today?

Bond: Some of the segregation we faced then exists today, without the same harshness. If you look at the housing patterns just in D.C., most of the black people live over here, most of the white people live over there. And that’s true of almost every city in the country . If you look at the totality, there’s still this enormous difference between black and white income, black and white life chances, black and white levels of education, and despite many of these gaps having closed, almost none of them have disappeared. So there is still much to be done.

The Hatchet: What kind of factor do you think race is playing the in the presidential election now?

Bond: (In polls), 9 percent of the people say that race will keep them from voting for a black candidate. And polls tell us that if 9 percent of the people are saying that, the actual percentage is much, much greater. Obviously this is still a tremendous barrier. At the NAACP we don’t endorse candidates . but think of the handicap (Sen. Barack) Obama (D-Ill.) faces with knowing that 9 percent of the voters will not vote for him. Doesn’t matter what he says, what he does, how he behaves, what he stands for; 9 percent of the people won’t vote for him. So it’s still very much affecting our politics today.

The Hatchet: You have been criticized for comments you have made in the past, particularly for saying, “Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side.”

Bond: I was speaking about a section of the American population. I didn’t say, “Republicans say that.” There are people who believe (in) the Confederate flag, which was the flag of the army and rebellion against the U.S. Well if I’m in rebellion against the U.S., what am I? I’m a traitor, am I not? And there is a section of the population that thinks the Confederate flag and the American flag are equal flags . The American flag is the flag of the people who fought for freedom and justice, (the Confederate) flag is the flag of the people who fought for slavery.

The Hatchet: How do you deflect the primarily conservative criticism that’s been brought against you in your career?

Bond: If you say things about the current situation, there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to disagree and you just have to say, “Gee, I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s the way I feel.”

The Hatchet: What will be the message of your Commencement address?

Bond: I think there’s a secret to a commencement addresses, period, no matter who makes them. First they ought to be short, because they’re not there to see you. Mom and dad are there to see Junior and Sally graduate. If they pick someone (to speak) that’s in the public eye, they’re there to hear what that person has to say about the present-day scene. I’m going to talk about the present-day scene. I’m not going to talk about President (George W.) Bush or Republicans or Democrats, for that matter. And it will be short.

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