Freedom Under Fire

Excerpts from the 2002 NAACP Convention Address, Houston, Tex., July 7, 2002.



This year’s convention theme – Freedom Under Fire – is appropriate in many ways. So, too, is the city and state in which we gather. …

In January 1921, when the [Houston] City Democratic Executive Committee adopted a resolution excluding Black voters from the upcoming primary, the Black leadership of Houston promptly sued.

It would take four United States Supreme Court cases and 23 years, but in the end they would emerge victorious. … They suffered many setbacks and disappointments, as have we, but they persevered.

What better place than here, what better time than now, to honor them – by vowing to turn out in massive numbers in November and cast our votes. …

Freedom was under fire then as it is now – at home and abroad. ...

Then, the NAACP and the Crisis took every opportunity to connect the struggle for racial equality at home to the democratic ideology that powered the Allied forces. Black newspapers used the war emergency “to persuade, embarrass, compel and shame our government and our nation” into a more enlightened attitude toward race.

Today’s times require no less – in fact, they insist on more. …

Those who died on Sept. 11 were a diverse group. … One of those who escaped from the World Trade Center said, “If you had seen what it was like in that stairway, you’d be proud. There was no gender, no race, [and] no religion. It was everyone, … helping each other.”

But away from that stairway, back in America’s streets, there is gender, there is race, there is religion. Since the attacks, people who look like Arabs or Muslims have been harassed, assaulted, even killed. ...

The administration’s two stated goals – retaliation against terrorists abroad and promotion of tolerance here at home – are … reminiscent of the Double V campaign waged by Blacks during World War II – victory against fascism abroad and racism at home. ...

Just as this enemy – terrorism – is more difficult to identify and punish, so is discrimination a more elusive target today. And just as we know a lot about discrimination, we know a lot about terrorism, too.

As Vernon Jordan said recently: “Slavery was terrorism, segregation was terrorism, the bombing of four little girls in Sunday school was terrorism. … And we know that the surest defense against terrorism is affirmation of America’s basic values.”

We learned that lesson long ago, on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, in 1918.

One of our founders, W. E. B. DuBois, swept up in the emotionalism and passion that patriotism sometimes brings, asked Black people to quiet our voices and quash our complaints.

“We will forget our special grievances,” he said, “and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”

The criticism he faced was immediate and loud. He quickly realized his call for a retreat from our rights was terribly wrong. He understood then – as we must today – that when wars are fought to save democracy, the first casualty is usually democracy itself.

So both because of, and in spite of, the war against terrorism, we will insist on our right to dissent, to petition our government for a redress of our grievances. We do so as patriots, not as partisans. To do otherwise would be a denial of the democracy we are defending, a repudiation of the rights we revere. ...

The world doesn’t need more weapons and walls; it needs less intolerance, ignorance, and disease. We don’t need more tax cuts; we need fewer tax cheats in corporate suites. The police and intelligence agencies don’t need more powers; they need more professionalism.

But we are seeing freedom shrink and fear expand.

We have a president who owes his election more to a dynasty than to democracy. When he spoke to our convention in Baltimore in 2000, he promised to enforce the civil rights laws. We knew he was in the oil business – we just didn’t know it was snake oil.

We have an attorney general who is a cross between J. Edgar Hoover and Jerry Falwell.

And too often one political party is shameless and the other is spineless.

Only one senator – Russell Feingold of Wisconsin – voted against the first hastily prepared and ill-considered terrorism measure proposed after Sept. 11. He explained his vote this way:

“If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search our home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists. But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live.”

Nor do we want to live in a country that permits surveillance and infiltration of religious and political organizations. Yet, the new FBI guidelines announced by J. Edgar Ashcroft do just that.

Just as we remember J. Edgar Hoover, we remember his counter-intelligence program, called COINTELPRO. … In a program called “Racial Matters,” the FBI tried to disrupt the civil rights movement. They wanted to smear Martin Luther King, Jr. They not only wanted him discredited, they wanted him dead, threatening him with the release of damaging information if he did not commit suicide. The excuse for COINTELPRO was the perceived threat of communism.

We thought we had put a stop to Hoover’s program of spies and lies in the 1970s after its abuses were exposed. Now, under the guise of fighting terrorism, the FBI is going back to spying on law-abiding citizens. … There is nothing the FBI could not do before Sept. 11 that they need to do now in order to bring today’s terrorists to justice or prevent another attack. And there’s every reason to keep them from returning to the discredited policies of the past.

They also want to return to racial profiling. …

American white men commit most domestic, homegrown terrorism – does the name Timothy McVeigh ring a bell? Or what about … white male multi-millionaires like Houston’s own “Kenny-boy” Lay or the executives of WorldCom or Tyco?

We know all about crime in the streets – who’s protecting us from crime in the suites?

While the administration is busy asserting sweeping police powers over the American people, it is sweeping voting rights violations from the 2000 election under the rug. The Justice Department whittled 11,000 election complaints down to five potential lawsuits, including a mere three in Florida. Those focus on Florida’s failure to provide language assistance to Spanish- and Creole-speaking voters in three counties.

We support language-assistance to voters, but most of the thousands of Black Floridians who were denied the right to vote speak English. The margin of their disenfranchisement surpassed the margin of victory for candidate Bush. …

So let us say in plain English – Florida will freeze over before you freeze us out! African-American voters turned out in massive numbers in 2000, and in 2002 we’re going to do it again. …

The failure to uphold voting rights is only one example of Attorney General Ashcroft’s failure to uphold his sworn duty to enforce the civil rights laws. …

Among those staffing the Voting Rights Section in the Department of Justice is a lawyer who helped run the purge of Florida’s voter rolls. Another is a former senior counsel for the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity, … one of the many organizations dedicated to overturning the gains of the civil rights movement which are now dictating public policy. Their very names – the Institute for Justice, the Campaign for a Color Blind America, the American Civil Rights Institute – are fraudulent, and their aims are frightening. …

Now as George W. Bush has ascended to the presidency, they have ascended to unprecedented positions of power within the federal government. Their leading legal organization is the Federalist Society. John Ashcroft served on the board of its St. Louis chapter. Theodore Olson, now Solicitor General, … was President of the Washington, D.C., lawyers’ chapter ... .

There is a right-wing conspiracy, and it is operating out of the United States Department of Justice. And the Office of White House Counsel. And the United States Commission on Civil Rights … . [They] have set their sights not only on affirmative action, but also on Title IX, the 30-year-old law guaranteeing gender equity in higher education. ...

There is an even wider conspiracy than this – an interlocking network of funders, groups, and activists … . They are the money, the motivation, and the movement behind vouchers, the legal assault on affirmative action and other remedies for discrimination, attempts to reapportion us out of office, and attacks on equity everywhere.

They’ve had a collection of Black hustlers and hucksters on their payrolls for more than twenty years, promoting them as the new generation of Black leaders. They can’t deal with the leaders we choose for ourselves – so they manufacture, promote, and hire new ones. … They’ve financed a conservative constellation of make-believe Black organizations, all of them hollow shells … .

They are color-blind all right – blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today. What they really want is to get rid of race: don’t ask about it; don’t count it.

Ward Connerly, the fraud behind California’s anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, is behind the deceptively-titled Racial Privacy Initiative, which will prohibit any California public agency – except the police – from collecting racial data, and thereby eviscerate civil rights enforcement.

As long as race counts, we have to count race. Not counting means not knowing how many Black or white children do well or poorly in school. Not knowing how many Black or Hispanic or Asian or white men or women work in what jobs at what pay. Not knowing how many minority youngsters are sentenced to longer terms in jail. … We must work to defeat this insidious initiative … .

We must also work to defeat predatory lending and its evil cousin, payday lending. …

Thanks to the Supreme Court, we now have to stop voucher programs at the state and local level. Vouchers are public welfare for private schools, and we know they are opposed by a majority of Americans, including African-Americans.

President Bush … compared the Supreme Court’s ruling in the voucher case to our victory in Brown v. Board of Education 48 years ago. The difference, Mr. President, is that freedom-loving people and the NAACP fought for Brown; today, freedom-loving people and the NAACP are fighting against transferring tax dollars to private schools. ...

There is a “judicial assault” on civil rights, led by the narrow five-member Supreme Court majority and some lower federal courts. They’re taking us back to the dark and dangerous days of the Dixiecrats, challenging the authority of Congress to enact civil rights protections.

The most important qualification for executive and judicial appointments seems to be an absolute lack of experience in civil rights – or better yet, antagonism to the accepted remedies for discrimination.

We must continue to monitor judicial nominees and defeat those who are unacceptable; we picked off Charles Pickering, but he’s only one of a long list of undesirable nominees – we’ve got to stop them, too.

W e must also work to end felony disenfranchisement. One hundred and thirty-one thousand Black men in Texas alone cannot vote because of felony convictions – 21 percent of the Black male population in this state.

We’ve got to defend affirmative action. The opponents of fairness keep telling us that affirmative action carries a stigma which attaches to all Blacks – as if none of us ever felt any stigma in the days before affirmative action was born.

Why don’t they ever make this argument about the millions of whites who got into Harvard or Yale because Dad was an alumnus? Or who got a good job because Dad was president of the company – or President of the United States? ... I seriously doubt if a single one of these men is suffering low self-esteem because he knows his race and gender won him his job.

And we’ve got to insure a massive turnout of minority voters in this year’s elections – our future is on the ballot in every state. If we don’t vote, we lose – and our children and grandchildren will lose, too.

We have much to do – economic inequality is widening. The remedies we’ve used to address racial inequality are under attack.

None of our work is easy work, but we have always been equal to the task.



Julian Bond has been Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors since January 1998. He is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Speech copyright 2002; excerpted and reprinted by permission.