Julian Bond: Civil Rights Leaders Will Not Give President-Elect Obama a Free Ride

The leader of the NAACP is optimistic about Obama's presidency and his work on civil rights.

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, responds to recent criticisms against the voter registration efforts conducted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008, during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP.

By and + More

Julian Bond, a prominent leader of the civil rights movement and the longtime chairman of the NAACP, announced this week that he would be stepping down from his position in February after the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary. Bond, 68, says the time is right to "let a new generation of leaders" take over the nation's oldest civil rights group. Earlier this fall, with the NAACP struggling for relevance and its membership rolls declining, the organization's board elected Benjamin Jealous, a 35-year-old former newspaper executive and online fundraising whiz, to become its next president. An election for chairman will be held next year.

Bond's decision to step down marks the end of an era for the NAACP, which has been led for decades by civil rights veterans. Bond himself helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta in 1960 and won a landmark Supreme Court battle over whether he should be allowed to take his elected seat in the Georgia House of Representatives while opposing the Vietnam War. U.S. News spoke with Bond after the presidential election about the politics of race—and how he views the prospects of the civil rights movement. Excerpts:

You have been involved in the civil rights movement for most of your life . How did it make you feel when you saw that the share of black voters who believe American society is fair and decent jumped after Barack Obama ' s victory from 18 percent to 42 percent?

It's incredible, isn't it? You hope this is not wishful thinking. And you hope they're not raising the level of expectation that no one could meet. But I think he will help satisfy some of these wishes. No one can do them all. He seems to be such an unusual person—from the nature of the campaign he ran, the discipline he exercised, it was really remarkable. I've seen elections since John F. Kennedy, and I've never seen one like this. What do you hope Obama will try to accomplish in the field of civil rights?

He's got to do something about judicial appointments. The Bush administration has populated the federal bench with people [who] are hostile to the generally accepted remedies for civil rights violations. They're hostile to affirmative action. We've seen the mess they made with the U.S. attorneys. Only 25 of Bush's 300-plus judicial appointments were black people. In the main, they tend to be extremely conservative. [Obama] is probably going to have the opportunity to appoint two or three Supreme Court justices. And he's going to have to clean out the Department of Justice. It's been populated by conservative ideologues, and they badly need to go. The NAACP has historically fought for housing and school desegregation . How much can any president do about these problems today?

He can wield the bully pulpit, and he can talk to us about things we need to correct. He can make sure his attorney general enforces the fair housing laws. He has a great gift for explaining things to all Americans in ways which most people say, "You know, that's right," and he needs to use that gift broadly in the civil rights field. More than 95 percent of black voters supported Obama. Do you think he will have to tread softly on civil rights, as he did in the campaign, for fear of seeming to play too much to his base?

I wouldn't call it treading softly. I think this is his style. He was careful not to run as the black candidate, and that served him very well. He got this overwhelming support from black Americans but obviously got support from a majority of other Americans, too. It's served him well, and I think it's going to serve him well as president. Many civil rights advocates are still celebrating Obama ' s election. Do you worry that groups like the NAACP aren ' t ready to put pressure on Obama as they would any other president?

No, I don't think anybody's going to give Obama a free ride. I think his actions are going to be monitored, his picks for the cabinet are going to be scrutinized, and I believe that people in the civil rights movement broadly are going to be pleased with most of the things that he does. I think they will have the president's ear, and they'll have the ear of people in his administration. At the same time, they're also going to be alert to things he may do or say that don't come up to their standards, and they'll let him know about it