Civil rights leader Julian Bond co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center. A former Georgia state senator, he has been a professor at several universities, including Harvard. He has served as a commentator on NBC’s “Today” show, and narrated the PBS documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” A past chairman of the NAACP, he currently sits on the organization’s board of directors.
How do activists sustain the momentum for employment non-discrimination?
They have to get people out pushing, as they always have, and have done on this issue successfully more so than I would have imagined. The speed with which they have gotten success and gotten the support of a majority of Americans is just fantastic to me. I think there are going to be books written — in fact I know there have been books written — about how this happened so quickly and so smoothly. Because it really is a masterful story.
Do you have any theories for this shift in public opinion?
Americans began to get used to gay people, instead of being, say, frightened of gay people, or unsure about them or (thinking) “What are they up to? Or is there something wrong here?” I think they have gotten used to gay people through television, the appearance of gay actors on TV, gay characters in movies, gay people appearing in ways we hadn’t seen before.
In many different ways, they became popular among us, they became known among us, and we said, “Well, that’s OK. I know old Joe. I know he’s gay, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” In some ways it is like the presence of black actors. You saw black actors years and years ago almost always in menial roles. And then as time went on, they began to be in other roles as just ordinary people. And that change helped America become accustomed — to say, “There’s Joe. He’s a black guy, but that’s OK.”
On primetime TV of the ’60s, so many shows avoided any talk of the civil rights movement.
Exactly so, but as the numbers began to go up and up and up; it became ordinary to people. And as it became ordinary, people began to embrace it in ways they would not have done so in the past.
You have been an important figure in two of the biggest movements for equality in recent generations. What were your high and low moments for each?
I was chairman of the board of the NAACP for 13 years. And for all of those 13 years, I would not bring up marriage equality before the board. I thought we would vote no. I would rather we have no opinion than a bad opinion. Then one day after I stepped down as chair, I am sitting on the board of directors where I still serve, and a guy next to me said, I vote in favor of marriage equality.
And I am saying to myself, “No, no, no. This is a bad idea. This is something we should do, but we don’t want to do it because we will vote against it.” Then someone says, “I will second that vote.” Then I am thinking, “This is bad. This is awful.” Then they call for a vote, and out of a 64-person board of directors, all but two people voted yes. I was surprised at how I had not thought better of my fellows on the board and not imagined that they would do the right thing.
There was a lot of criticism of the campaign against Proposition 8 for not doing enough to reach out to the African-American community.
I know there has been a shift. It would be a different thing entirely if you took a vote today.
What are the key similarities of this movement to the civil rights movement of the ’60s?
I have always said that the black civil rights movement did four things: mobilization, coalition, organization and litigation. The gay civil rights movement has done the same things, and will have to do the same things.
What is the most important thing that the entertainment industry has to remember in supporting LGBT rights?
I think they have to make sure that they are reaching outside their own community. If you are a person with blue eyes, and you want to help people with blue eyes, you have to reach outside the blue-eyed-person community. You can’t just depend on people who look like you or who are like you. You have got to reach out to larger and larger groups of people, and when you do that, you will be successful. You can’t just preach to the choir.