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The success of the American civil rights movement should be measured not by the increase in black millionaires since the 1960s, but by the decrease in black employment, civil rights pioneer Julian Bond declared at MIT's 29th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Persistent and growing poverty among black Americans points to a "failure to keep the movement moving on," Bond, 63, told the standing-room-only crowd in the Stratton Student Center on Feb. 14.
Bond warned the group of students, faculty and guests that King's tireless grassroots work on behalf of poor and disenfranchised black Americans seemed lost on recent generations who see King only "as a grainy TV picture--a gifted preacher who had a dream."
He reminded the audience that King was assassinated while supporting a garbage workers' strike in Memphis. "For too many, we don't honor the movement, we honor the myth," he said. "Yesterday's movement was a people's movement--it relied on people."
In a speech that was as scathing against the current Bush administration and justice system as it was measured, civil and gentlemanly, Bond said that some of the same forces that tried to derail the civil rights movement in the 1960s are still in place today, and even more insidious because they are harder to detect.
Bond spent 20 years in the Georgia legislature and more recently served as chairman of the NAACP and as a professor at American University and the University of Virginia. He said that just as terrorism is difficult to punish and detect, so is today's brand of racism. While racism that resulted in public lynchings was more blatant, the racism inherent in the current political climate is just as real.
"Removal of the more blatant forms of American apartheid makes it seem like the discussion is over. We find ourselves fighting old battles that we thought we had won," he said. "We're seeing freedom shrink and hate expand."
"There is a right-wing conspiracy," he said, and it is operating out of the top levels of the U.S. government and through organizations that "wallow in imagined victimhood" and "buy seats at the tables of influence.
"We're such a young country," said Bond, himself the grandson of a slave. "It's only been 38 years since many of the civil rights laws were passed. Some are telling us those 38 years have been enough.
"We need a formula for the future that includes the fact that society has been doing something special against the Negro. Affirmative action is under attack not because it has failed but because it has succeeded," he said.
The war on poverty, he said, has been replaced by a war on the poor, as both Bush administrations have supported tax cuts for the wealthy and cut dozens of programs aimed at helping the disenfranchised. "And where are the Democrats?" he said. "Absent without leave from this battle for America's soul. Often one political party is shameless and one is spineless."
In his 40 years of activism, Bond said he is more concerned than ever that decades of progress are being threatened by the current political climate.
Racial justice, economic equality and world peace are among the themes that occupied Martin Luther King Jr., Bond said, and these are the themes that should occupy us. "As the drums of war beat louder, we should remember what we're fighting for," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.