Civil Rights Leader: Equality Means Equality

The NAACP is officially supporting same-sex marriage. The group says marriage equality is a civil right and is encouraging black voters to support the issue if it shows up on state ballots. Host Michel Martin talks with Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the group.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, today marks an historic moment for Egyptians. It's their first presidential election since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year. Some argue it's actually the first free and fair election in the nation's history. We'll hear more about who is running and what voters are saying in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about an historic announcement from the venerable civil rights organization, the NAACP. America's oldest and largest civil rights group now officially supports same-sex marriage rights. The NAACP recently passed a resolution opposing any policy or legislative initiative that, quote, "seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the constitutional rights of LGBT citizens," unquote.

That position may put the organization at odds with many African-Americans. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of black Americans oppose same-sex marriage rights.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon the NAACP's chairman emeritus, Julian Bond. He's also a well-known and respected civil rights leader. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

JULIAN BOND: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, this has not been a personal struggle for you. As I recall, you know, in previous...

BOND: No.

MARTIN: ...conversations you and I have had, you've never expressed any concern about marriage equality yourself.

BOND: No, no. It's long been an article of faith with me that equality means equality and if we're all going to be equal in America, being able to marry is one of the equal things all of us need.

MARTIN: The organization, though, on the whole, has not previously taken up this issue, although there was, I think, a march in 1993, an LGBT rights march that the organization supported.

BOND: We supported it. Our chairman at the time attended it. So did several of our staff members, and the board voted unanimously to support it. I was on the board then and I tell you, frankly, I don't remember this, so it probably wasn't on my radar screen as much as it ought to have been, but it shows that we're not Johnny-come-lately's to this fight.

MARTIN: But this announcement is being seen as a big deal. Do you think it's a big deal?

BOND: I think it's a big deal. I think we're the first majority black civil rights organization to say what we said. I think, if you look at the changing polls figures over time, the numbers and percentages of black Americans who support fairness and justice is growing rather than shrinking, and we're in the vanguard.

MARTIN: The president made his personal statement, his statement about his own personal views a couple of days before the NAACP made its announcement. Was the timing related in some way?

BOND: Not really, and really. Not really because we did this at our quarterly board meeting. That's been said a long time ago. We're going to meet on that day and nothing President Obama said would change it in any way. Yes, it did because in effect I think he gave Americans permission to think about this and to talk about this in ways they had not done so in the past. So it was yes - a yes-no.

MARTIN: To the degree that African-Americans do have difficulty with this, why do you think that they do? And I do think it is fair to mention that a lot of Americans have difficulty with marriage equality, but many people, particularly LGBT activists, seem to have been particularly pained by the opposition of African-Americans because they see the two struggles as similar, and even many African-Americans don't agree with that either.

BOND: Well, I think this heightened African-American objection to these issues - and not just marriage, but any kind of equality for lesbians and gays - is biblically-based, I'm sad to say, because African-Americans are overwhelmingly a religious people. Most of us are Christians. Many of us take the Bible literally. But you know, it's hard to believe that you can take the Bible literally. I mean there are some things in it that seem so ridiculous, you wonder how anybody could agree with them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the NAACP's endorsement of same-sex marriage rights with Julian Bond. He's a longtime and well-respected civil rights leader. He's the chairman emeritus of the NAACP.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s niece, Alveda King, has attacked the NAACP for their support of same-sex marriage, saying that neither her great grandfather, who was one of the founders of the NAACP, nor her uncle, Dr. King, would agree with this resolution. And Julian Bond, you certainly knew Dr. King. I don't know whether it's fair to speculate about what his position would or would not have been, but...

BOND: It is fair...

MARTIN: What do you think?

BOND: It's fair to know because there's no record of him opposing equal rights for gay people. There's no record of him supporting it. The only thing, as far as we know, he said about gay rights - he used to write a column for, I think, Ebony magazine, and in a column somebody wrote to him and said I feel an attraction for other men, what can I do about this? And King used language to describe it as a psychological problem this man was having because that was the current thing of the time that, that if you were gay or lesbian, it was a psychological problem you have. People believed it was something you could cure.

Of course, unfortunately some people believe that too, but you know, you can't pray the gay away. But - so we don't know what King would have said. If we look at his widow, Coretta Scott King, she was a big proponent of civil rights for gay people and spoke around the country at many, many forums about it. She was right on point on this issue and you can assume - but you can't know - that he would have been the same way.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the NAACP's stance here will be persuasive to African-Americans who have been skeptical, and what would your argument be? I don't know if you've actually had these arguments or discussions with other people on the board who have not shared your own personal views on this or leading members of the organization.

BOND: Well, you know, this was the first time the NAACP board had been faced with this issue - that is, asked to make a position, are you for it or against it. Our chairman, Roslyn Brock, called for an executive session, so it was only board members in the room. There are 64 of us. We had a speaker who sort of set the issue. Here's what the issue was. And he was careful to say this is not a religious question. This is a legal question. Do you believe in fairness and justice? Not do you believe in the Bible.

And then there's about 45 minutes of questions and statements, and two I remember particularly - a young man, college student. We're the only civil rights organization that reserves seats for college students on our board of directors. He said, if I voted on my faith, I'd vote against this. If I voted on the law, I'd vote for it.

And then a minister, an older man, said - as a way of explaining how he was going to vote - I'm ashamed that I've been, for most of my life, part of an institution that kept women from playing major positions, and it is almost as if he said I'm not going to make that mistake again.

And when it came down to a vote, of the 64 of us on the board, two voted no and everybody else voted yes.

MARTIN: When it comes to the question of the comparison of the struggle for equality and dignity for African-Americans, and also for women, people who oppose same-sex marriage rights say that there's a difference, that those are biological realities that can't be changed, where they believe that same-sex attraction is a behavior that can be controlled and they feel it should not have the same standing. What is it that animates this profound belief?

BOND: It's part of that. It's part of ignorance about what the latest science says and lack of knowledge that the man who validated these cures, these so-called cures, has repudiated his validation of them, have said he was wrong, he made a terrible mistake, he's so sorry, it hurt many people. He wished he hadn't done it and he wouldn't do it again.

But it's also, I think, just a feeling that these people are not like me and there must be some reason for it and it's because they've chosen to be not like me. But they never think of the opposite. Have I chosen to be like me? Is this the decision I made? Did I wake up in my mother's arms when I was a brand new baby and said, I'm going to be straight? Of course not. Nobody says that, but some people apparently believe that and I just can't tell you how wrong they are.

MARTIN: There are those who have argued that African-Americans - the fact that we have an African-American president in the White House, notwithstanding the fact that African-Americans have achieved leadership positions, you know, throughout kind of the political structure of the country, still feel that there are so many disparities - you know, health, education, and the criminal justice system. There are some who feel the priorities of African-Americans are not getting the attention that they still feel it deserves, and I don't know how to describe it, maybe that the thunder has been stolen by another group. And I just wonder if you've heard that point of view expressed.

BOND: I've heard that and in some way I share it a great deal, but I like to think that black Americans are big-hearted enough that there's room in our concern for everyone and that we are open to the problems other people face. Where they're similar to ours, we can adopt them, we can embrace them. So I've often felt, why are you paying attention to those people? What about me?

But I can pay attention to those people because I know those people. I'm friends with those people. I work with those people. Those people help me and now I'm going to help them as often as I can.

MARTIN: Julian Bond is chairman emeritus of the NAACP. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Mr. Bond, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

BOND: My pleasure.

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