Keep the Promise Ohio: Civil Rights Leader Julian Bond’s Speech

In Advocacy, News by AHF

Julian Bond was Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors from February 1998 until February 2010 and is now Chairman Emeritus. He is a Distinguished Scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and an Emeritus Professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. Mr. Bond was the keynote speaker at the “Keep the Promise on AIDS” march and rally on Saturday, May 11, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The following is the text of his speech:

Congratulations!
By your presence here today you are a part of a righteous non-violent army dedicated to vanquishing HIV/AIDS.

You will have to fight many battles on many fronts before that final victory is achieved. But win you must. As you well know, it is literally a matter of life and death.

Many years ago another non-violent army arose to challenge another scourge – the scourge of white supremacy.

Martin Luther King Jr. was the most famous and best known of the modern movement’s personalities, but it was a people’s movement. It produced leaders of its own; but it relied not on the noted but the nameless, not on the famous but the faceless. It didn’t wait for commands from afar to begin a campaign against injustice. It saw wrong and acted against it; it saw evil and brought it down.

Many stand now in reflection of that earlier movement’s successes, including the election of Barack Obama.

Looking back at that movement from today, we now see a very different view of the events and personalities of the period.

Instead of the towering figures of Kings and Kennedys standing alone, we now also see an army of anonymous women and men.

Instead of famous orations made to multitudes, we now also see the planning and work that preceded the triumphant speech.

Instead of a series of well-publicized marches and protests, we now also see long organizing campaigns and brave and lonely soldiers often working in near solitude.

Instead of prayerful petitions for government’s deliverance, we now see aggressive demands and the ethic of self-reliance and self-help.

We now realize our view of the movement’s goals was narrow too. Seeking more than the removal of racial segregation, the movement did not want to be integrated into a burning house; rather, it wanted to build a better house for everyone. It marched on Washington for freedom and jobs, not for abstract freedom alone.

And instead of a sudden and unanticipated upsurge in black activism in Montgomery in 1955, we now see a long and unceasing history of aggressive challenges to white supremacy that began as long ago as slavery time.

And instead of a movement that ended in 1968 with the death of Martin Luther King, we now see continued movement stretching form the ancient past until this moment, with different forms and personalities, in many places and locales, with differing methods and techniques, whose central goal has always been the expansion of human rights.

You – and the fight against AIDS – are a part of that struggle.

Once again a people’s movement is seeing wrong and acting against it, seeing evil and bringing it down. Relying not on the noted but on the nameless, not on the famous but on the faceless.

Relying on you!

HIV/AIDS is a disease. It must be treated – medically. But it also must be treated as a social justice issue.

It has been 32 years since we first learned of a disease that was killing gay men. It was perceived then as a white disease – as if there were no black men who were gay.

Now the face of AIDS here and abroad is primarily black. The majority of new infections here are black, the majority of people who die from AIDS here are black, and the people most at risk of contracting this virus in the United States are black.

That victims of AIDS largely have been members of marginalized populations has dictated the larger society’s response.

This includes the rabid homophobia that lives in our school, our homes and especially our churches.

Too often our churches, which should be places of refuge and love, have instead been places of hurt and pain.

Cafeteria Christian pick a biblical injunction from column A while ignoring those from columns B through Z. They sat that Leviticus 18:22 prohibits homosexuality and gay men are being punished for their sins.

Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. Does this apply to Mexicans or Canadians or both?

Exodus 21:7 sanctions selling my daughter into slavery. I have two very pretty daughters – what would be a fair price for the pair?

Leviticus 15:19-24 forbids me from having contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women seem to take offense. Are there any here? If so, should they be asked to leave?

My neighbors insist on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states they should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill them myself, or should I ask the police to do it for me?

Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread, usually a cotton/polyester blend. He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them as it says in Leviticus 21:10-16? Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair?

Happily, at least partially at the urging of the NAACP I am glad to say, there is now a national commitment from faith leaders to address HIV and AIDS in the black community.

The title of a report recently issued by the NAACP says it all: “The Black Church and HIV: the Social Justice Imperative.”

The report details how the HIV/AIDS epidemic is driven by political, educational, economic and social inequality and concludes:
“HIV is one of the largest social just/civil rights issues facing our community today. It is not just a health issue; it is a social justice issue.”

The data are sobering. Black people are:

  • Less likely to know they have the virus;
  • Less likely to get treatment;
  • More likely to progress to AIDS within one year of receiving an HIV diagnosis, and
  • More likely to die of complications of AIDS than any other race

Almost every social indicator, from birth to death reflects black-white disparities. Infant mortality rates are 146 percent higher; rate of death from homicide 521 percent higher; lack of health insurance 42 percent more likely; the proportion with a college degree 60 percent lower. And the average white American will live 5 ½ years longer than the average black American.

Similarly, compared with other races and ethnicities, black Americans account for a higher proportion of HIV infections at all stages of the disease – from new infections to death.

That these same disparities show up in the context of HIV/AIDS is not because black people are more likely to have unprotected sex than other racial or ethnic groups. It is not because black people are more likely to have multiple sexual partners. Not because they are more likely to share needles.

It is because of barriers faced by blacks, including socioeconomic status and access to health care. It is because, in other words, of a lack of social injustice

In the United States of America, the richest country in the world, people are dying because of a lack of social justice.

HIV is the third leading cause of death among adult African-Americans. Although blacks are about 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 44% of all new HIV infections among those aged 13 years or older. An estimated 1 in 16 black men and 1 in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes.

Behind the numbers are names. Those women and men need you.

They need you to stand with them, to take ownership of AIDS, and to fight this epidemic with every available resource.

We’re calling on America to engage in a coordinated campaign with concrete, measurable goals and objectives and real deadlines. Each of us must identify strategies and activities that match our unique niches and capabilities.

We must build a new sense of urgency in America, so that no one accepts the idea that the presence of HIV and AIDS is inevitable.

We’re calling on America to get informed about the science and facts about AIDS. Knowledge is a powerful weapon in this war.

We’re calling on Americans to get screened and find out their HIV status. I have – it took 20 minutes and was bloodless and painless. Knowing your HIV status and the status of your partner can save your life.

We’re calling for a massive effort to address the disproportionate impact this epidemic is having on black youth, women, injecting drug users and men who have sex with men.

We must also pressure our government and elected officials – at local, state and national levels – to be far more responsible partners than they have been. We must also work with elected officials to promote comprehensive, age-appropriate, culturally competent AIDS prevention efforts that give young people the tools that they need to protect themselves.

We must heed Martin Luther King Jr.’s warning, originally meant for others but right for us now: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

We must advocate for justice in the fight against HIV/AIDS, just as we did the movement for civil rights.

So we have to work to do – none of it is easy, but we have never wished our way to freedom. Instead, we have always worked our way.

We must not forget that Martin Luther King stood before and with thousands, the people who made the mighty movement what it was.

From Jamestown’s slave pens to Montgomery’s boycotted busses, these ordinary men and women labored in obscurity, and from Montgomery forward they provided the foot soldiers of the freedom army. They shared, with King, “an abiding faith in America.”

They walked in dignity, rather than ride in shame. They faced bombs in Birmingham and mobs in Mississippi. They sat down at lunch counters so others could stand up. They marched – and they organized.

King didn’t march from Selma to Montgomery by herself. He didn’t speak to an empty field at the March on Washington. There were thousands marching with him, and before him, and thousands more who did the dirty work that preceded the triumphal march.

We have a long and honorable tradition of social justice in this country. It still sends forth the message that when we act together we can overcome.

We are such a young nation so recently removed from slavery that only my father’s generation stands between Julian Bond and human bondage. Like many others, I am the grandson of a slave.

My grandfather, James Bond, was born in 1863, in Kentucky; freedom didn’t come for him until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865.

He and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair. As a young girl, she had been given away as a wedding present to a new bride, and when that bride became pregnant, her husband – that’s my great-grandmother’s owner and master – exercised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress.

That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.

At age 15, barely able to read and write, he hitched his tuition – a steer – to a rope and walked across Kentucky to Berea College and the college took him in.

When my grandfather graduated from Berea in 1892, the college asked him to deliver the commencement address.

He said to them:
“The pessimist from his corner looks out on the world of wickedness and sin, and blinded by all that is good or hopeful in the condition and progress of the human race, bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future.”

“In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe.”

“He forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories.”

With your efforts, we will achieve our victory. We will rid the world of AIDS!

And we can borrow a theme from the heroine of the hour, Amanda Berry and look forward to the day when we can say with her, “We are Free now, we are free!”

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