Last month Julian Bond, NAACP national board chairman for the past ten years, announced that he would not seek re-election for the post. The decision was lauded by critics of the NAACP, which celebrates its one-hundredth anniversary next year, who claim that the civil rights organization is outdated and could use fresh new faces at the helm. In a written statement, Bond, 68, even said he was "ready to let a new generation of leaders lead." But three weeks later he had a sudden change of heart, and last week announced that he would be sticking around after all.
Bond's renewed commitment to NAACP leadership comes at the end of a year that saw high tensions between older and younger generations of African-Americans, from pro-Obama bloggers in the Afrosphere slamming the Congressional Black Caucus members who supported Senator Hillary Clinton for president, to rapper Nas's emphatic declaration that the time of Jesse Jackson and his contemporaries was up. ESSENCE.com spoke with Bond-a veteran civil rights activist who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee while a student at Morehouse College in 1960-about the generational schism. In a candid conversation he told us that he thinks he's not only fit to continue leading as NAACP Chairman-he's also uninterested in passing the torch to a younger generation.
ESSENCE.COM: Let's go back to last month. Why did you initially decide to not seek re-election as chairman of the NAACP?
JULIAN BOND: Well, a great many things. It's a tough job. It's a time-consuming job. But I'd always said that I wanted to be chairman until the NAACP centennial year. Then I began to get an avalanche of petitions and requests from an overwhelming majority of my board members asking me to run again. They were saying, "You are so closely associated with the NAACP that it would be great to have you still associated in the year when we're celebrating our one-hundredth birthday, when we'll be doing a number of things to highlight the NAACP." I couldn't say no.
ESSENCE.COM: There have been detractors of your decision to stay, arguing that it's time for a new, younger person to lead the board of directors. Do you think that's a valid point?
BOND: Not really. It strikes me as ageism, and saying that after you've reached a certain age you're no longer fit for the job.
ESSENCE.COM: You yourself said, in your original announcement, that "it's time for a new generation to lead." So, do you believe that or not?
BOND: I think that was misinterpreted. What I meant is that we have a new president and CEO at the NAACP [Ben Jealous, 35, who was announced earlier this year]. And one ought not to think that he or she has a permanent lock on any position.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think about younger people who criticize you as being part of an old guard that needs to step aside?
BOND: Let me tell you a story. I can't remember when this was, but on one of the anniversaries of the March on Washington, there was an event held on the Washington Mall. It may have been the thirtieth anniversary, which would have been in 1993. There were more speakers sitting on the podium than there were people in the audience at the original march. In the middle of all these, there was a ceremony called "Passing the Torch." It was, symbolically, the old, gray-haired stooped people passing the torch to young people. I was revolted by this. When I was first engaged in civil rights activity, nobody passed the torch to me. I had to reach up and grab the torch, and pry their fingers away from it. I think that's the way change works.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think, specifically, that they should be doing?
BOND: They should work hard to win leadership positions for themselves. These things don't happen automatically. George Bush didn't say, "Gee, I've been President long enough; I think I'll quit and let someone else take over." We had an election. If we're talking about the NAACP in particular, they should engage themselves in the NAACP. So many of our critics have never lifted a finger to do anything for the organization. They aren't members; they aren't supporters; they've never given a dime. And of course they're free to criticize. We're far from perfect. But I prefer to be criticized by people who are trying to make a good situation better than people who are just critics.
ESSENCE.COM: The NAACP turns 100 next year, the same year that Barack Obama takes office as the country's first Black president. Does the organization plan to mark these monumental occasions with any sort of change in direction?
BOND: Well, the centennial marks a change that we are proud to take some credit for. Had it not been for the last 99 years of work we've done, I don't believe Barack Obama would be president-elect of the United States today. We're not at all trying to claim all of the credit. But we do want to claim some of the credit for creating an America that would be welcoming to a Black candidate for the presidency of the United States.
ESSENCE.COM: But is the NAACP going to renew its focus, or do anything differently, after 100 years of existence?
BOND: Think about this. What we do, put very simply, is we fight racial discrimination. And we believe that over the past 99 years, racial discrimination has decreased, but we don't believe it has disappeared. As long as it exists, we will continue to fight it. So in that regard, no, we're not changing our focus in any bit, on any matter. Some people thought that if they voted for Barack Obama, and if he became president, that all racial problems would disappear. That's a hopeful thing to wish for, but it just isn't true. So while we are overjoyed that he has been elected, we don't think that's the end of the fight.