Two weeks ago, Julian Bond was one of 49 people arrested in front of the White House as they sought to push President Barack Obama to take greater action against climate change.
Bond is not content to rest on his laurels after a lifetime of activism and told an audience at Gallaudet University on Feb. 21 that those seeking social change have to continue to fight against the status quo.
"We have to hope that our fellow Americans feel the sense of outrage," he said. "Someone needs to make some noise, make some things happen."
Bond, 73, has been making things happen since he was a student at Morehouse University in Atlanta, Ga. In 1968, Bond was a founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), became the first African American put forward as a major party candidate for vice president and he was the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bond served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1998-2008. He is the recipient of 25 honorary degrees.
While the changes in society since the 1960s have been impressive, Bond continues to actively engage in issues of economic justice, civil rights and peace and remains an unabashed voice for the disenfranchised.
In each constituency, he said, African Americans and members of the deaf community share common experiences which are a part of their collective identities.
"There are differences in means but your goals are group-based and your futures linked," Bond said. "In the civil rights movement, we always thought that we were engaged in a larger and even more important struggle, engaged in a struggle for human rights which envelops every human being everywhere on the planet."
Almost 50 years ago, said Bond, Bayard Rustin – an advisor to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizer of the March on Washington – wrote that the movement was evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement.
"It was an evolution calling its very name into question. It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but achieving the fact of equality," Rustin wrote. "From sit-ins and freedom rides, we've moved into rent strikes, boycotts, community organizing and political action. And as King began to call for a more equitable distribution and railed against the Vietnam War, the movement continued to move beyond its original intent."
During the lecture, Bond laid out the context that led to the development of the modern civil rights movement and tied the movement to Gallaudet's Deaf President Now (DPN) movement.
Gallaudet is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the DPN movement this March. The protests on campus led to the appointment of a deaf president, I. King Jordan, for the first time at that point in Gallaudet's history. Bond, Angela Davis and other civil and human rights icons have lectured at the university to mark the milestone.
Bond discussed the impact of DPN on the lives of deaf people in the United States and the world, compared it to the arc of the civil rights movement and spotlighted a number of the transformative changes each has brought the United States. And while he describes himself as an eternal optimist, Bond acknowledged that a good deal of work remains.
"Movements forced elites to inaugurate reforms that would otherwise have been ignored," he said. "... Movements usually begin with a concrete precipitating event. For the civil rights movement, it was the arrest of Rosa Parks. The resignation of [former Gallaudet president] Jerry Lee could be seen as an important element."
All good movements, Bond explained, must continue to agitate, sustain morale, foster fellowship and develop tactics. Movements must also have catalytic leadership "who join the adventure without a foreseeable end," and also must have a strategy, plan and tactics to confront its oppressors.
"You have to hope and expect the movement to succeed and for it to effect change and provide relief from the injustices a group faces," he said.
The civil rights movement had within it all these elements and more, said Bond, as he and others on the frontlines battled a tripartite system of oppression – economic, political, and personal.
"It was state supported private terror and ritual human sacrifice carried out by the state and citizens," Bond said of the lynchings, beatings and brutality visited daily on African Americans and those who challenged segregation, racism and discrimination. "... No other ethnic group – except Native Americans – has experienced a comparable mix of xenophobic attitudinal and structural limitations and dictatorial constraints on their development. It is absolutely without parallel in the American experience."
Bond said people tend to look at racism in terms of individual behavior and actions but it's actually a complex set of societal attitudes and actions. He explained that there are two kinds of racist behavior, active and passive, and whether white people do it consciously or unconsciously, they all benefit materially and psychologically.
"For all their years in the United States, black people have struggled to find answers to a series of questions: how do we explain the position of blacks in society; who or what is the enemy and who are our friends; with whom can we join in coalition? What is the nature of whites? Are they naturally hostile to blacks? And is it impossible for them to abandon the benefits they receive from racism?" he asked.
"Unlike Polish Americans or Germans, Italian and Irish Americans – all of whom became colorful ethnic variations on the central All-American theme – African Americans remain the indigestible alternative. Unlike all the others, they refused to agree to white supremacy. And unlike all the others, black ethnic mobilization has been often characterized and demeaned as identity politics, somehow democratically illegitimate; while white variants like puritanism, the confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, the Moral Majority, the Tea Party and others are simply ordinary expressions of democratic activism."
Gallaudet's president, T. Alan Hurwitz said he was surprise at the many parallels Bond made with the civil rights movement and the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
"I have to say I'm amazed at how many similarities he spoke of," Hurwitz said through an interpreter. "There are so many issues and challenges that we face. He talked about all people coming together. People came together 25 years ago and got what we sought to achieve."
Liletha Davison agreed.
"One of the challenges we face at Gallaudet is getting together and getting the staff to recognize and respect each other," said Davison, a staff program coordinator. "I'm trying to find some tools to make this happen. Did I hear what I wanted to hear? Yeah. He said push, push, push. I wanted an easy answer though."