As author Tom Peters once said, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” This idea supports the foundation upon which the Weekend Renewing America’s Promise (WRAP) retreat was established, and on Friday evening the group heard from respected civil rights leader Julian Bond, now the chairman of the NAACP.
Mr. Bond joined the WRAP lineup at the United Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs to recount a lifetime of leadership and to share his unique life story — one of activism and tolerance in the face of unspeakable opposition during periods of racial segregation and throughout the life of the civil rights movement. His determination to promote basic human rights across racial and socio-economic lines led to an extensive and varied career as an author, university professor, grassroots organizer and politician.
Mr. Bond told his story with casual, conversational flare in the format of an interview given with his close friend and fellow activist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. The interview began on a comical note when Ms. Hunter-Gault referenced his extensive history as a “race man,” with a backhanded compliment about his well preserved maturity. “You don’t look a hundred,” she teased. “I’ll have to get your secret.”
Mr. Bond began with a discussion of his childhood experiences. “I think you get to be where you are by your parents,” he said. “[My father] was always interested in higher education and always interested in progress of the race, and instilled in his children the ideals which he held. My mother, his life-mate, was the same kind of person. I knew from my earliest days that there were no differences between people [of different races]. People were just people.”
His parents, both educators, taught Mr. Bond to stand up for his right to be treated as an equal, but not to take foolish chances or invite trouble. As a young college student, when he began to actively protest civil injustice towards people of his race, he did indeed take chances, though they could hardly be considered foolish. His nonviolent demonstrations triggered arrests and jail time, but his role in the civil rights movement became inspirational. He became involved with sit-in demonstrations at the suggestion of a fellow student, the first of which was held at the cafeteria of the Atlanta city hall in 1960. It would lead to the first of many arrests throughout his involvement in the movement. During that jail stay, he was chosen to represent the group of about 25 protestors before the judge, and he remembered being confused as to how he should plead. On the one hand, he didn’t feel that he had done anything wrong, but on the other, he had defied the orders of a police officer. The audience at the Methodist Church erupted in laughter when Mr. Bond recalled that a lawyer, noticing his hesitation, leaned to him and whispered, “Not guilty, you fool.”
If he wasn’t the most sophisticated activist at the beginning of his career, he certainly grew into a confident leader with practice and guidance. On the advice of legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker, Mr. Bond decided not to align himself with “older, more sedentary organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” but to find something new and vital to support. Instead, he joined other young activists in forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
But Mr. Bond did not deny the role the NAACP played in his early activism. When members of the SNCC landed in jail for protesting, it was the NAACP that bailed them out. Four decades later, he would become NAACP chairman. In the meantime, he demonstrated his leadership through roles in journalism, education and politics.
His suggestion to prospective leaders of today? Agitate, and organize.
“The best advice I ever heard was what Fredrick Douglass said shortly before he died. He said ‘agitate, agitate, agitate,’” said Mr. Bond. “If you agitate, and agitate wisely and correctly against the evils that you see about you everywhere you go, and you get others to join you in this agitation, then you will help to . . . open doors, to make this a better world . . . . So organize and agitate, that’s what I suggest . . . I really think that unless you are part of an organization, you’re not going to get far. You’re not going to do as much as you could do or should do.”
Mr. Bond discussed ways technology can help to expose these evils, citing photographic technology specifically. He appealed to the audience to react when witnessing an example of injustice, to snap a photo with a camera phone and send it to the NAACP. “We’ll put it on the Internet, and the world will see,” he said.
In the question and answer part of the session, a surprise guest stood to address Mr. Bond. Faye Wattleton, current president of the Center for the Advancement of Women and first-ever African American president to be elected to Planned Parenthood, asked Mr. Bond to discuss another first-timer.
“Let’s talk a little bit about the emerging backlash to Barack Obama’s election. I think we’d like to believe that somehow this is a major step forward,” she said. “In many ways, an African American or non-white President raises issues that I think we have never really grappled with because we’ve not been here before.” Then she asked Mr. Bond for his opinion.
“There are a large number of Americans uneasy with the shifting demographics of the country,” said Mr. Bond. The fact that we have elected a black President who also happens to be well-spoken, well-educated, and highly intelligent is unsettling to his opposition, and they react in ways that damage the country as a whole. According to Mr. Bond, critics of the President demonstrate their displeasure by failing to support or endorse anything Mr. Obama proposes.
“I don’t know how to get rid of the stain that remains in our country; it’s not enough to say that it will die out in time, because as it dies out it seems to grow up again,” he said. “As the people who hold these views seem to pass away, younger ones come to take their place.” Mr. Bond said that while he is proud to see a black President in power, the country as a whole is far from that post-racial position so many Americans would like to believe in.
Mr. Bond underscored the theme that much work remains to be done. Following Mr. Bond’s interview, Maxim Thorne, founder of the WRAP retreat, rose to thank his special guest for reaching out to a new generation of leaders.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done with WRAP weekend, because really it’s about energizing and bringing young people of incredible talent to civil justice,” he said. “We have people that we need to become the new anchors and the new pillars of the future of civil rights . . . . We happen to be so grateful and inspired by the amazing work of Mr. Bond . . . in creating a legacy that continues to live on and recruit the highest number of young people to a civil rights organization.”