Civil Rights Activist Says Movement Needs New Ideas

February 17, 1991|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — It can be hard to figure the state of civil rights in the United States.

Blacks occupy high-level positions in both business and government. A black Army general, Colin L. Powell, heads the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, directing allied forces in the Persian Gulf war.

Yet such images deliver a deceptive portrait, Julian Bond, civil rights activist and former Georgia state legislator, said Wednesday at Western Maryland College.

"In some ways, in 1991 we are worse off than in the years that went before," Bond said during his lecture, part of WMC's Black History Celebration '91.

After significant strides in the '60s and '70s, the civil rights movement suffered numerous setbacks, particularly during the Reagan years, Bond said.

He termed President Reagan an "amiable incompetent" and blamed his administration for dismantling affirmative-action programs and working to discredit the civil rights movement and its leaders.

The Bush administration gives civil rights leaders reason for optimism, but not much, he said.

He called the president's recent veto of civil rights legislation "a real tragedy" and expressed little hope that the civil rights agenda would gain much ground under Bush's leadership.

"Thecurrent threat to civil rights comes . . . from the national government and the White House," said Bond, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1965 to 1975, then in the state Senate until 1987.

However, Republican Party leaders alone aren't responsible for the civil rights movement's slowing, he said. Bond pointed to shortcomings of his own Democratic Party.

"Democrats have forgotten how to be in opposition," said Bond, now a lecturer at the University of Virginia. "They can't form words or programs of their own."

Additionally, he said, the civil rights drive has suffered from a wane ingrass-roots activities.

"The movement's lacking people with the determination to say, 'We want to do something about it. Jesse Jackson's not coming, let's do it ourselves,' " he said.

The civil rightsmission has changed since the days of Martin Luther King, bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins in the Deep South, Bond said. Though basic rights have been secured for blacks, challenges remain.

"The remaining item on the civil rights agenda -- economic justice -- remains unaddressed and unfulfilled," he said.

Because the objectives are different today, leaders must generate new strategies for achievingthose objectives, Bond said. What some have identified as apathy within the movement, Bond sees as leaders groping for direction.

"Thetrouble's not so much apathy as that they (activists) have trouble figuring out what to do. You have to think of new things to do. The movement's the same, but the targets are much different."

Simply registering and voting, as well as participation in such organizations as Boy Scouts and the PTA, provide ample opportunities for people who want to get more involved.

Bond disagreed with recent charges thatminorities -- who make up about 30 percent of the U.S. force deployed in the gulf -- are bearing an unfair burden of the fighting.

"It's not reflective of anything bad the military has done," he said. "The military is the most racially integrated institution in American life."

Bond also addressed the rise in inner-city crime and violence, which he attributed primarily to the ready availability of handguns.

"People are using handguns to settle disputes that used to be settled with fists or knives," he said. "Now the first hand that findsa pistol is the hand that triumphs."

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