PHILADELPHIA – “The race is on, and the consequences of loss” in the 2004 elections “are almost too dire to bear,” Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, told the organization’s 95th annual convention held here July 10-15. The fighting legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, echoed off the walls here as Bond called the 2004 elections the most important in recent memory.

Both Bond and NAACP CEO and President Kweisi Mfume, who keynoted the first plenary session, blasted Bush administration policies that have adversely affected African Americans. Education, jobs, health care, the Iraq War and voting and civil rights topped the issues list in their opening speeches.

Mfume challenged the president and the Congress to stand up with the NAACP for the real issues of the day: funding for quality public education, ending racial discrimination in both the corporate and federal sector against Black and Latino workers, legislative action to deal with the highest unemployment in the Black community in 30 years and also underemployment, redlining of Black neighborhoods, and shrinking benefits and pensions.

Only days before the convention, Mfume had urged the U.S. Attorney General to order the state of Florida to cease and desist from purging voters from its rolls. Over 20,000 voters have been illegally purged.

“There is no greater imperative than the need to protect the right of all Americans to be able to cast a free and unfettered vote and to have that vote counted,” Mfume said. “While the president proclaims the goal of building democracy in Iraq, eligible voters in the USA are being stripped of their constitutional rights.”

Yet with all the obstacles to a “free and unfettered vote” the NAACP convention placed heavy emphasis on the Black vote and voter registration as central to a victory for democracy.

Bond read off an impressive list of NAACP branches that have achieved “thousandaire” status, having registered more than 1,000 people in their area. Bond told the 8,000 delegates, “any branch in the association that is not registering voters ought to turn in its charter.”

Black people have a lot at stake in the election, he said. Calling it “a contest between two views,” Bond said one view wants to surrender control to special interests, weaken democracy, give religion veto power over science, curtail civil liberties, and despoil the environment, while the other view wants to expand democracy and give the people control over their government.

Pointing out that the NAACP has always been non-partisan but not non-critical, Bond went through a timeline, starting in 1909, of Democratic and Republican presidents and their relationship to African Americans. Pointing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the “beginning of the dependence of the Republican Party on the politics of racial division to win elections and gain power,” Bond gave a devastating criticism of the GOP and its current leader George W. Bush.

But Bond also criticized the Democratic Party for not standing up to the larceny that took place in Florida in 2000. “When one party is shameless, the other party cannot be spineless,” Bond said.

Bond reviewed the civil rights struggles, legislation and court rulings from Brown v. Board of Education until the present. Bond emphasized the historical importance of Brown and how much further the country has to go to realize the “promise” of Brown.

“To Thurgood Marshall, Brown was the Magna Carta for Black America, a declaration of our rights. He thought segregated schools would be eliminated in five years. He was right about the former but wrong about the latter,” Bond said.

Arguing that the opening attack on school desegregation began with President Richard Nixon’s appointment of now Chief Justice William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, Bond said the attack continues today. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bond said, fought school integration when he was attorney general and governor in Missouri.

Bond called the integration of schools still “truly radical” because it changes the formative racial experience of the next generation. He also criticized the racist education funding sytem and the “No Child Left Behind” law, which formalizes “two school systems: one filled with middle class children, mostly white, and one filled with low-income minorities.”

Even through the devastating critiques, Bond emphasized the “politics of hope.” He ended his powerful presentation with a quote from poet Langston Hughes: “Oh, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath – America will be!”

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Rosita Johnson
Rosita Johnson

Retired Philadelphia public school teacher Rosita Johnson has devoted her time and energy in organizing material assistance to South African students and teachers before and after the defeat of apartheid.

Debbie A. Bell
Debbie A. Bell

Debbie A. Bell, who died in 2017, was a longtime freedom fighter and Communist Party member who went to jail in the deep South fighting for civil rights alongside her good friend Julian Bond. She became a teacher, union, and Party leader in Philadelphia. A working-class intellectual and community leader she was a model of commitment and courage during the most difficult days.