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
One issue many civil rights groups have been talking about is congressional representation for Washington , D.C. With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, is that something you plan to pursue?
It is the time, and it ought to happen right now, and I know [Obama] is in favor of it. There's a slight bit of disagreement among the advocates about how to pursue this, whether to go for a single representative in the House or to try for two senators. I don't think [senators] are likely. The Democrats had a chance to do it in the past, and they didn't. Voting rights in the House, we deserve. I think that's going to happen.
What else do you think Obama can actually change? Four or eight years from now, what do you hope will be different?
If the Democrats can hold these majorities they have [and once the economy begins to improve], I'd predict that in eight years, we'll be living in a radically different and better country than we're living in today. We'll have voting rights in D.C.; we'll have a Department of Justice populated by people who are committed to civil rights enforcement. We'll have a Supreme Court that obeys and enforces the Constitution and doesn't try to apply the doctrines of "original intent." Cabinet officers will put people [and not corporate interests] first. In foreign affairs, the respect in which we are held worldwide will have risen enormously. We'll just be so much better off.
Do you think Obama will pursue policies akin to FDR ' s New Deal or LBJ ' s Great Society?
I do think something like that will happen. A New Deal-like program, a jobs program, a public works program, a kind of Civilian Conservation Corps—some models taken from Roosevelt that transform the relationship between the government and the people. Rather than have the government stand aside and having us struggle for ourselves, the government will play a helping hand. I think that will happen.
If Obama asks you to serve in his administration, will you?
I keep hearing people say, "If the president asked you, you'd have to say yes." But I do not anticipate him asking me.