FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Half a century ago, the civil rights movement achieved racial justice in the law for African-Americans, how issues like desegregation played out locally and, overtime, did very widely. So in every instance, younger African-Americans have benefited from the activism and sacrifice of the generation that led the movement.
Recent rallies around the so-called Jena Six have raised issues about the fights for justice that still remain. It's also raised the question of whether a new civil rights movement is afoot and whether different generations are collaborating or competing for leadership.
Joining us today, we've got Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, and activist and writer Kevin Powell. His latest book is called "Someday We'll All Be Free."
Now, Kevin, I'm going to jump right in. Based on the title of your book, I assume you think that we are not free. Do you think we need a new civil rights movement?
Mr. KEVIN POWELL (Activist; Author, "Someday We'll All Be Free"): Thank you, Farai, for the opportunity. And good day, Mr. Bond.
No, we are not free. We certainly can see a great deal of progress from my mother's generation. She is 64, so she's clearly a product of the civil rights generation to my generation - me being the first person in my family to go to college because of that great movement.
But the reality is I don't think we need a new civil rights movement. I think what we need is a black empowerment movement. I think part of the issue is that, you know, there's a kind of nostalgia for that period that we continue to hold on to, and there are things that are happening now that are far different than anything we have experienced during segregation in this country that demand a new law language, a new vocabulary, and new tactics to address the issue that we're facing in the 21st century.
CHIDEYA: What do you mean by a black empowerment movement?
Mr. POWELL: Well, it's clear to me. You know, I may be doing well individually. I've gone to college. I own property, I'm a business owner - those kinds of things, but I live Brooklyn, New York, which has the biggest black community very quietly in America over a million African people from all over the globe. We had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country. We have massive gentrification and the lack of affordable housing. We have a 70, 80 percent - in some areas -black unemployment.
You know, when you talk about empowerment, the reality is there's things that need to happen for our people holistically and collectively around our communities - they're just not happening. And we got to stop playing to individual's success stories and taking that's actually achieving when it's not.
CHIDEYA: Now, Julian, Kevin just said civil rights, no; black empowerment, yes. What's your response to that?
Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman, National Advancement for the Advancement of Colored People): Well, I'm not sure if these are different things. It strikes me that the whole tenor of the civil rights movement from its beginning and, of course, there's dispute about when it began, but from its beginning has been about black empowerment, enabling black people to overcome the legal barriers in an earlier phase and to overcome the extra legal barriers in the present phase to permit them to live to the fullest extent possible.
CHIDEYA: Now, you had a fairly well publicized debate over the leadership of the NAACP and whether, as Bruce Gordon said, who's now departed, it should be about economic empowerment. And, as you said, it should be about civil rights and justice. Explain to me your position on that and how you want to achieve your goals.
Mr. BOND: Well, this was actually a one-sided debate - from Mr. Gordon only. We've always believed that we are about, among other things, economic empowerment. You go back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Doctor King and the people in Montgomery weren't just asking for front seats on the bus, they were asking for access to the very front seat where the driver sits. That's the paid position, that's economic empowerment. They wanted black people hired as bus drivers in Montgomery, and there are numerous examples, both before and after that, where the goal of integration was coupled with the goal for integration of the economy. So I think this is not an actual debate or difference between generations, I think it's a continuation of an old struggle that included economic empowerment.
Mr. POWELL: I respectfully disagree, Mr. Bond, because if we go back to one of Doctor King's final pieces of writings called "Black Power Redefined," where he felt compelled, as younger black American at that time, as you know, (unintelligible) and other folks were screaming black power around America to actually put into writing what black powers should look like, and he talked about it, not just being as having access to a bus or to a restaurant to get a hamburger, but to actually begin to own the restaurant and own the bus line, and I think that's the issue for us.
There is a difference because, you know, we confuse access during the civil rights in my opinion, we confuse integration and - success through different things. And as a result, we have fewer black-owned businesses than we did during the segregation period. We don't want to go back to segregation. But what we do need to look at is where are all those black - that we had that no longer exist. That's real economic empowerment. If you look at any community in this country - be it the Jewish community, the Chinese-American community in New York City, other communities - it's about owning - property, not just having access to wherever you want to sit on the bus. And I mean just being the person who drives - own the actual company - that's real power.
Mr. BOND: Well, again, I'd refer you back to Montgomery in 1955 and 1956 where the Montgomery Improvement Association tried to get a license to conduct a bus company. So even in that period so many years ago, they were thinking about ownership. And I'd argue that both before and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott that an element in the civil rights movement has always been focused on ownership, on entrepreneurship.
Mr. POWELL: Well, I think, unfortunately, that hasn't translated to the masses of our people because even though we have more college-educated black folks than ever before, we have more black millionaires than ever before, more of our people are mired in poverty than ever before, which is why, again, if we go back to the great martyr of the civil rights movement Doctor King, why was he trying to organize a poor people's campaign? Because he realized it had to be an issue of economic justice.
I would argue it's not an either or. It's not about economic empowerment versus civil rights and justice. It's about both. But the problem is that a lot of us who call ourselves as leaders over the last 40 years have focused so much just on the civil rights side, we have not dealt, in my opinion, with the real issue of how do we begin to empower communities, you know?
Here in Brooklyn, I mean, I think it's a tragedy that we have more black elected officials than a lot of places, yet we are just quickly being moved out of the community because very few of us - we even taught the basics how to maintain our property or actually get property, and you see it happening with the whole subprime mortgage crisis where we're now being reactive. And part of the problem is that both of (unintelligible) positions are constantly been reactive of crisis mode because there's a lot of elders who have said to me, Mr. Bond, who are of your generation, the problem is that you, all, didn't have a longterm plan after you came out of the civil rights movement, and that's why we're in the mess we're in.
Mr. BOND: Well, again, I don't want this to be a dispute or an argument over historical facts.
Mr. POWELL: (Unintelligible), sir.
Mr. BOND: But the truth is that there are efforts being made by people in what is broadly called the civil rights movement to do precisely the things you're talking about. I can't argue with you about the conditions that black people in Brooklyn or other parts of the country face. They are dismal. They are abysmal. But I would argue with you if you suggest that nobody is doing anything about them or has ever done anything about them until the current day.
Mr. POWELL: (Unintelligible) at all.
CHIDEYA: Now, gentlemen…
Mr. POWELL: (Unintelligible), sir.
CHIDEYA: Let me jump in for a second.
Mr. POWELL: Well, that - all right, Farai.
CHIDEYA: I just want to make sure that everybody knows who you are and what we're talking about.
This is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I am Farai Chideya.
And if you're just tuning in, we're talking about whether older and younger generations are collaborators on civil rights or competitors.
And we are talking with NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, and activist and writer Kevin Powell.
Kevin, let me ask you, you are running for office. You're running for Congress. That is a specific form of black empowerment. What, A, makes you do it; and, B, makes you think you can succeed?
Mr. POWELL: Well, A, what makes me do it is because I'm very tired, and many of us are very tired of black leadership that has taken these offices as a sense of entitlement and really haven't been doing the jobs that they need to be doing. And we understand that the Republicans have been controlling this country and the minds of this country for a quarter of century. We're not naïve about that. But we also feel that there are certain things that you can do as an advocate of bringing resources together.
And the reality is, you know, if you're an elected officer - and Mr. Bond knows this because he's been in many positions in his lifetime - you can use your position to actually bring economic interest to the table and the grassroots activist to the table and the spiritual religious community to the table and the major civil rights organizations to the table, and say we need to create a plan.
What I would to say to Mr. Bond, I'm not saying that folks haven't been trying for the last 40 years. What I'm saying is that it's clear to me that there's a new day that need to happen. And if you look at my generation - be it myself (unintelligible). That's right, everyone that I worked with in my circle is either a business owner or a property owner or both, and we all pay homage -great homage to the civil rights effort.
But we're just saying that we're sick and tired of using the same approaches because what has happened is everything that we do ends up becoming a conference or a study or a rally or a march, and at the end of the day, there's a reason why many - the masses of our people in our communities, in our country don't even pay respect to the NAACP the way they did 40 or 50 years ago, where everyone belonged to the organization - or at least it seemed like everyone belonged to the organization.
It means that we've got to use some new approaches, and I feel those approaches have got to come from my generation. And I think that there needs to be an acceptance that we're the leadership now. There's no question about it.
CHIDEYA: Now, Chairman Bond, there's always a question of whether do you pass the baton or somebody snatches it from you.
Mr. BOND: I believe you snatched it.
CHIDEYA: Okay. So that's a very clear demarcation. Why do you think that? Do you think it's because it makes people stronger to rest leadership? Why would you make people kind of jump up and snatch it rather than passing it?
Mr. BOND: Well, you know, I hate to sound like my father, but I can't help it. My father used to always lecture me by saying when I was your age, we were doing X and Y, and Z. I don't know how Mr. Powell is, but it strikes me there's a long history of challenges by younger people to older people in the civil rights movement. And when I was just starting out as a civil rights activist, I faced a community of elders who were not happy with our tactics or our goals and so on, and we tried two ways of dealing with that.
On the one hand, we challenged them and said, well, you know, this is something new we're trying. We think it will work. We've seen it work in other positions. And secondly, we're going to do it whether you like it or not. So we didn't wait for batons to be passed or leadership to be bestowed. We took leadership. And I think successive generations have to do the same thing. If you believe you have a better idea, and you very well may, then you ought to try out that better idea instead of waiting for somebody to say, okay, you're in charge.
Mr. POWELL: Well, actually, sir, we haven't been waiting. I'm clocking 40 years of age, just so you know that, and I've been active in this - in our struggles because there's no movement - there's been no movement in the civil rights movement for the last 20 years, in the anti-apartheid movement and movements around register black folks to vote, that's when I first saw you and met you back at '86, '87. Or with Dr. Ben Chase(ph), we reenacted the whole Freedom Rides. I've been involved in everything up to police brutality cases, Katrina relief efforts where we sent over 700 college students down to the Gulf Coast. So we certainly agree. We don't wait for anyone.
But what we want to have, with all due respect, sir, for once in our lifetime, is some sort of real dialogue because the unfortunate thing is they're making - well, my generation feels that the glass ceiling that has been blocking folks in many of our organizations, has been that the civil rights generation, being very fearful and distrustful that younger people can't lead. And so as you feel that way, I don't think it's just about saying they need to snatch the leadership. I think maybe some folks need to stop - start stepping down from the board of your organization who are past 65, 70 years of age. I think some folks don't need to be in office for 25 or 30 years if they have become - in my opinion, useless in those offices. They're using those offices simply as a place to tag their own income and take care of their families, but that's unaccepted when our people are suffering.
I want to put a challenge out there. It's not just about snatching. It's about you all beginning to understand that you actually begin to block progress if you don't move out of the way. It's really simple.
Mr. BOND: You know, in my organization, the NAACP, we are absolutely democratic. I say that with a small D, not meaning the party, but the method of which we operate.
Our board of directors is elected. Anybody who's a member can run for that board and when - if he or she appeals to the majority of the people. We are the only civil rights organization I know of that reserves seats on our board of directors for young people. There are seven young people under 25 serving on my board of directors. They've been as young as high school age since I've been the chair. So there's no barrier to youth participation in the NAACP. In fact, youth membership is our fastest-growing segment of membership.
Mr. POWELL: I totally agree with you, sir, because I think that many of the youth organizations, youth chapters all around the country, I'm telling you, because I've been to almost all 50 states and I touched base with many of the youth chapters, many of them have the same kind of complaint, where they'll get to a certain point within the organization and there's blockage, you know? And that's real - I think…
CHIDEYA: Kevin, let me…
Mr. POWELL: …I want to (unintelligible) having an honest assessment of what's going on and (unintelligible) service…
CHIDEYA: Let me ask Chairman Bond something and then flip it back to you.
Mr. POWELL: Yes. Please pardon me.
CHIDEYA: Chairman Bond, hip-hop activism.
Mr. BOND: Mm-hmm.
CHIDEYA: Love it, hate it, understand it - what do you think about it?
Mr. BOND: Well, I'm impressed that this group of younger people have seized upon a culture, which they have helped create and are trying to engage it in the larger political struggle. So it's not just people singing from a stage or on a record or a CD, but actually being engaged in the community. I'm tremendously impressed with that and I encourage them to proceed and go forward.
Mr. POWELL: Well, I think that, you know, where I - what hip-hop activism to me - the kind of activism I love is when the whole Katrina(ph) happen. People in my generation worked with the 19 and 20-year-olds with folks coming right behind us and it wasn't the kind of hostility or tension. We weren't jealous of them. We weren't trying to block them. We respected the fact that these college students were out there today. These (unintelligible) about it today, are doing some very serious work. And I think that's the model that we need to see.
And, unfortunately, Mr. Bond, with all due respect, I hear you. I respect what you're saying. But there's a lot of folks in my generation who feel that this dialogue is too late and it should have been happening 20, 15, 20 years ago, and it's going to be an honest conversation. It can't be defense(ph), that we really need to understand that there's some serious happening in this error that have to be addressed and it's not just about snatching leadership. We really need everyone together to work on this issues.
CHIDEYA: Now, Chairman Bond, what's the finish line? What's the goal? What's the mountaintop? Where are we headed in your opinion?
Mr. BOND: Well, I hope we're headed toward a continuation of what I take to be an older dialogue - not something that's just happening right now. I'm 67 years old. And for most of my adult life, there has been this dialogue between the older and the younger generation. It's - sometimes it started in (unintelligible) starts, it sometimes produced some real results, it sometimes resulted in some frustration. But it's not something that just began this year. It's been ongoing for many, many years. And it has - and I guess, it'll be ongoing for many, many years on the future.
CHIDEYA: Kevin, you have a situation, where over the past 50 years, black people have dispersed out of black neighborhoods into…
Mr. POWELL: Yes, ma'am.
CHIDEYA: …many integrated neighborhoods.
Mr. POWELL: Yes, ma'am.
CHIDEYA: Not everybody, but some.
Mr. POWELL: Right.
CHIDEYA: How do you take the people who don't live in black neighborhoods and pull them into a movement for black empowerment?
Mr. POWELL: Well, that's an excellent question, Farai. I think that we need to understand that when we talk about how we define the movement in the 21st century, community has changed completely.
Now, I meet folks who are from parts of Long Island or suburban New Jersey and other areas who want to do something for the community, but they feel like they're not doing being reached out, too, because there's this notion that if you're black, it has to be one way - you only have to - you only can talk about certain kinds of issues. And that's wrong as well.
I feel that we've got to have leadership that's going to be multilingual and the ability to appeal to working-class black folks in the hood as well as middle-class black folks who live in P.G. County. That's how I feel. But I feel that, unfortunately, I feel that kind of leash is really going to come from our generation because we're the first generation that really grew up in an integrated America. We were forced by circumstance to be multilingual and multicultural.
I live in a white neighborhood from the time I was 13, 18. I went to a predominantly white school, but I also grew up with a mother from South Carolina. So I was able to cross many cultural boundaries. That's the kind of leadership we need. We can't have leadership that is acting as if it's still 1967. That's unacceptable.
CHIDEYA: Chairman Bond, same question. Very briefly.
Mr. BOND: Well, I don't think today's leadership is acting like it's 1967. I think they're acting like it's 2007. You know, the question of black leadership is a large and complicated one. But we ought not believe that cross-generational appeals are some new phenomenon.
Just yesterday, I spoke with a panel of people my age, who'd been active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to a big audience in Howard University. So it's a big contrast here - the 60-ish people on the stage and these 20-ish people in the audience and it was a fruitful ongoing dialogue.
Some members of the audience were members of the Howard NAACP, of the University of Maryland NAACP, of Georgetown NAACP. That's the generation that's actually engaged in these struggles that's actually working in all of the things Mr. Powell mentioned ago. I mean, Katrina relief, the Jena march - all of those things, you find many, many young people and many, many young people doing those things.
Mr. BOND: I think this is an artificial debate.
CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, on that note, much more to discuss, but we got to wrap it up. Thank you so much.
Mr. BOND: Thank you.
Mr. POWELL: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: We've been talking with Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, Kevin Powell, activist and writer, who's latest book is "Someday We'll All Be Free."