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Roe at 40 Podcast Series: Interview with Julian Bond

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In the second installment of our podcast series examining the state of the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we talk to civil and human rights icon Julian Bond. The black community was profoundly impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. Maternal mortality rates for black women seeking illegal abortions in the South pre-Roe were as high as 14 times that of white women, and forced sterilizations were a common practice. We discuss how a woman’s right to choose safe and legal abortion, as well as preventing involuntary or coerced unwanted and unnecessary sterilization, was as much a part of the civil rights movement as securing the right to vote.

Heidi Williamson: My name is Heidi Williamson, Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress. I’m here this morning with Julian Bond, a civil rights leader and icon, who has been an advocate for several progressive issues throughout his life, including marriage equality, women’s rights, and criminal justice.

Many of us met Mr. Bond as the narrator of the award-winning PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” in elementary or middle school. He began his career while at Morehouse College with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, otherwise known as SNCC. He was appointed as communications director, where he served in that capacity for more than six years. He then ran for elected office and, at the tender age of 25, became one of Georgia’s youngest elected officials. He served in the Georgia House and eventually the Georgia Senate. He has always been a tireless advocate on behalf of women’s rights and reproductive justice, and continues to inspire advocates in all progressive movements. He served as chairman of the NAACP for 11 years and is currently a professor at American University. Join me in welcoming Mr. Julian Bond.

Julian Bond: Pleasure to be here.

HW: Thank you so much for coming. So can you tell us a little bit about the moment that you were compelled to become engaged in the civil rights movement—how that happened and transpired?

JB: Well looking back on it, I now know I was the victim of peer pressure. I was sitting in a cafeteria near Morehouse College, where I was a student. And a student whom I knew only vaguely came up to me with a newspaper and held up the newspaper and said, “Have you seen this?” And he pointed to a story about the Greensboro sit-ins. And I said, “Yes, I have seen that.” And I was first a little angry because I thought the question was, “Do you read the paper?” And I thought every college student read a paper every day. But I said yes, I had seen that story. He said, “What do you think about it?” I said, “I think it’s great.” He said, “Don’t you think it ought to happen here in Atlanta?” And I said, “Oh, it’s going to happen here in Atlanta.” And he said, “Don’t you think we ought to make it happen here?” And before I could say, “What do you mean, ‘we’?” he said, “You take this side of the café, I’ll take the other side. We’ll call a meeting.” So he and I went around the cafeteria, talked to this person, this person, this person. And when we had a critical mass, we said we were going to have a meeting at “x” place this afternoon, and that was the beginning of the Atlanta student movement.

HW: Wow—it happened that smoothly, that instantaneously. I love that. I love that. So you have been an outspoken supporter of reproductive rights. How do you think your work in the civil rights movement influenced that?

JB: Well, I think you could not be in the civil rights movement without having an appreciation for everybody’s rights. That these rights are not divisible—not something men have and women don’t and so on. And I think working in a situation with men and women, and seeing women take on roles equal to the roles taken by men made you understand that, “Hey, these people can do things too.” And I think it made me and other people in the movement realize that we’re living in a community of equals. And that among those equals, they have equal rights. And we ought to respect their rights if they respected ours—if we expected them to respect ours. So I think it was just seeing people like myself doing what I was doing and doing it so well that it made me think, “Gee, if ever they have something that’s peculiar to them, and I can help, then I want to be able help.” And it’s like, in a way, gay and lesbian people. You don’t have to be gay or lesbian to say, “These people need some kind of help. They are involved in trying to get rights for themselves, and I ought to be supportive of that. Because they were supportive of me.” And I’m not going to help them just because they helped me. But because they helped me, I ought to help them.

HW: Can you talk a little bit about Roe v. Wade, when that decision came down, some of the changes you saw in the black community? 1973—you were in the Georgia legislature. But I think about particularly being in the South. The South then had as many health care disparities as it does now. And black women in particular were subject to a number of atrocities regarding reproductive health. I think of one of your colleagues in SNCC, Fannie Lou Hamer, who suffered her “Mississippi Appendectomy,” which—for the Millennials listening, if you have never heard of that term—refers to the unwarranted and unnecessary and often uninformed decision of a medical professional to remove all of the reproductive organs of poor, and in many instances black and Latina, women. Can you just tell us a little bit about your experience at the time?

JB: Well, I heard Ms. Hamer talk about that, you know. She said she went to this doctor, and he performed this procedure. And then he told her. And she asked, “Why did you do that?” And he wouldn’t tell her or couldn’t tell her why he did it. And obviously he did that because he was part of, I think, an unspoken attempt to decimate black people and to reduce the number of black babies that’d be born, thereby lessening their numbers in the community. And it’s frightening to think about it that he would exercise this power because he could and because she couldn’t say no to it. It just spoke to me of the powerlessness of people like Ms. Hamer and people like myself for that matter. So it was just staggering to hear her describe this having happened to her. And you thought—it could happen to me, it could happen to you, it could happen to this person, it could happen to anybody, and it had probably happened to many, many people who did not know themselves that this was going on. So it was frightening—frightening.

Editor’s note: In 2010 an antiabortion group started a billboard campaign that claimed, ”Black Children Are an Endangered Species,” and included other messages that implied abortion is a form of genocide based on the fact that African American women have a higher rate of abortions than the general population. These messages ignore the larger context of health disparities that African American women experience, including increased rates of unintended pregnancy, maternal and infant mortality, low birth weight, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, among others.

HW: I think the last time you and I worked together, we were actively attempting to defeat a billboard campaign that started in Atlanta, Georgia, that, without giving credit to the people who created it or the messaging behind it, in essence tried to talk about the high rates of abortion in the black community in the context of genocide, and make black women responsible for the high rates, as if we were perpetrators in our community.

JB: Indeed so. It’s like saying, “You’re committing genocide, you did it yourself.” And you know that’s such an ugly thing to have happen to any people. And an ugly accusation to make against people, that “You’re doing it, you’re doing it to yourselves.” And because I used to live in Atlanta, I felt a special closeness to this campaign. And I wondered who was paying for it. And I knew the people who were doing it were not paying for it themselves. They didn’t have the money for this. It had to come from some outside sources. And that was a hidden source. And any time money is hidden in politics, as you know, it’s bad news. And it was bad news then. And it would be bad news today.

HW: So since you served as an elected official—and I think all men, to some degree, wonder how they should enter and exit the conversation of abortion—do you have any words for the elected officials who are African American, who might be the target of a new version of this campaign but may not know how to enter or participate in a conversation around abortion access, particularly as it pertains to black women?

JB: I would say to them “Talk to a woman.” Reach over to the woman sitting next to you and ask her what you can do to help her in this situation. What you can do to counter this campaign. And I think you’ll get plenty of answers.

HW: That’s such a novel answer—I don’t think it occurs to most elected officials.

JB: Well, I really don’t think it does. When I was in the Georgia legislature, women were such a rarity in terms of the numbers that they were like an oddity. “Look at Mary, over there. Ooh, she’s a woman.” It wasn’t quite like that, but really, I mean, there were so many more men than women that I think we tended to say, “I can ask Mary,” if there’s something I don’t know. I don’t know, if Mary has had an experience I don’t have, and it comes up in the floor of the legislature, and I can do something about it, I need to ask Mary. And Mary might not be the only person I’d ask, but she would be the first person I’d ask.

HW: Right, right. So there are a number of people, again, who don’t believe that abortion rights are civil rights—that abortion rights can’t be connected to human rights. What do you think about that?

JB: Well, you know, there’s this big debate that goes on in America about what rights are: Civil rights, human rights, what they are? And I think it’s—in part—it’s an artificial debate. Because everybody has rights. Everybody has rights—I don’t care who you are, what you do, where you come from, how you were born, what your race or creed or color is. You have rights. Everybody’s got rights.

HW: Because you’re human?

JB: You’re a human being. And if you’re a human being, you have human rights. You know, I get people who tell me, “Look, I’m all for gay rights. But let’s not talk about civil rights in the same context because civil rights are black rights.” Of course, that’s not true.

HW: Right, that is very much not true.

JB: There is no coloration to rights. Everybody has rights. I don’t care who you are, where you come from. You got rights. I got rights. All God’s children got rights. We could make a song out of this. But anyway, I think this discussion is more a diversion than anything else. Because we all have rights. And they are human rights because we are human beings. And that’s just it for me.

HW: Do you think people really understand what the civil rights movement was, or do you think it gets conflated with racial justice?

JB: I think it gets conflated with racial justice because of all the rights movements in America, it’s the most prominent of them. It had the most prominent spokesperson—Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the one best known. The most books have been written about it. The most documentaries have been made about it. The most anniversaries we celebrate about it. So it’s prominent in our minds. So when we think about civil rights, we think, “Oh yeah, black people, lunch counters, bus rides—that kind of thing—voting, those kinds of things.” And that’s good. That’s a good way to think about it. But that’s not all of it. There is more to it than that. And unless we think of it in the totality, we are not thinking about it in the right way.

HW: A recent poll showed that 68 percent of Millennials don’t know what Roe v. Wade is. And I reached out to a couple of educators, and we had a conversation around the civil rights legislation that was passed that was so significant, and they were saying that they didn’t think most Millennials knew what the Civil Rights Act was. And for me, that raised the question: Do Millennials need to know what are the cases? Is the case law—the actual precedent—the priority? Or is it the values? Is it the fact that they know they have the right, they’re actively living the right—is that the concern?

JB: I think they really need to know both. You hope that an ordinary American education, high school and college, would include some treatment of these rights and these fights for rights. What was the Voting Rights Act? What is the Civil Rights Act? How were they passed? What do they do? That’s an ordinary expectation I have of an educated person—that he or she, if they have graduated from college, should know about these things. Now, the Southern Poverty Law Center has done a study of the teaching of civil rights history in American schools and found what, to me, was peculiar when I first heard about it—that the states with the largest number of black people are most likely to have these classes. And I wonder if that’s because they say, “Well, the black people need to know this.” Or because they think, “Because there are black people, we need all students to know this.” I hope that it’s the latter, but even if it’s the former, that’s OK. Because it means all students are being taught these kinds of lessons. But unfortunately, this is not widespread in the country, so not all students learn this history.

My students used to tell me that in high school their teachers would get up to the Second World War, and history stopped then. And they never got any history beyond that. So part of my job was telling them what happened to the country from the Second World War forward, filling in the gaps that had been missing in their education. But I think they need to both know what these laws are and what they mean and how they affect them. And they are—all of us are—affected by these laws. I don’t care if you’re black, white, male, female, whatever—all of us are affected by these laws.

HW: Can you talk a little bit about during the civil rights movement, the importance of working on multiple issues? Intersectionality is a big component of reproductive justice. When we talk about realizing reproductive freedoms and liberties for the most vulnerable women, we recognize that you have to fight for different freedoms simultaneously. So civil rights isn’t separate from education rights or antipoverty initiatives. Can you talk a little bit about how you managed that in your coming of age?

JB: I’m sorry to say looking back on it we managed that unthinkingly. We didn’t plot it; we didn’t plan it. We didn’t say, “Now let’s work on this issue. Now let’s work on that issue.” The issues seemed to come to us. And we grappled with them and said, “Here is the best way to go about this thing. Here’s poverty.  Here’s hunger. Here’s something else. Here’s absence of voting rights. Here’s inability to sit at the lunch counter.” All these things are both separate and connected. And we can easily handle them all if we develop a thoughtful campaign to do so. And we did.

I’ve just recently been busying myself with looking at the way the civil rights movement approached foreign policy. And it’s a fascinating story because I don’t think anyone’s told it—well, there’s been a couple of good books written about it, but I don’t think the general population has ever had an idea of what happened in foreign policy because of the civil rights movement. Most people will think, if you press them, will say, “Oh yeah, Dr. King was against the war in Vietnam.” So that’s a great example and, of course, that’s true. But it’s much broader, much wider than that. And it’s just a rich, rich field of exploration, and fascinating to me to learn things that I wasn’t really absolutely sure of myself, even though some of it I lived through and participated in.

HW: Wow. [Pause.] Realizing Roe at the local level looks really different, in D.C., it’s simply about being able to control their local budget—which, it is amazing how that fight has to happen year after year, what they can do and what kind of abortions they can and cannot pay for. In a state like Mississippi, abortion rights is this dance, where separate issues play themselves out simultaneously, and I think seemingly they’re not connected, but they are. So year before last, there was a “personhood” amendment on the ballot that failed, but there was also a voting initiative that was on the ballot. And only the women of color seemed really alarmed by the disconnection of the psyche of the electorate. What do you think?

JB: Going back to your first discussion of the District of Columbia—where we are sitting now—I don’t think most Americans, including many who live in the District of Columbia, know how little power citizens of the District of Columbia actually have and know that we are at the mercy of the Congress—that a congressman from anywhere in the country can introduce a law that affects me. I’m not one of his constituents, I didn’t vote for him or her. I probably wouldn’t have voted for him or her if he was running in my area. But he or she can introduce a bill, it can pass the Congress, that affects only me, that changes the way my government works, that changes what services I can get, that affects me in the in the most horrendous kind of way. I don’t think most Americans know that. Now, I don’t think most Americans know that in Mississippi I think there is only one abortion clinic right now…

HW: That’s fighting to stay open.

JB: Yes, it’s fighting for its life. And in other states, the situation is nearly as dire.

HW: Yeah. So you told me you are an optimist. So tell me what you envision for civil rights and human rights 40 years into the future? It’s the 40th anniversary of Roe but…

JB: Let me talk about the immediate future. I am afraid that in the immediate future, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act are in real jeopardy. But in the long run, I think they will survive and thrive or re-pass in the Congress—that the wrong will be made right again. Because I am an optimist. I’ve always been an optimist. I always think the good thing will happen. And most of the time, the good thing seems to happen and my worst fears do not come to happen. So I am an optimist. I think 40 years from now, we’ll be living in a much better country. You will be. I might not be. Living in a much better country. Much different country than we…

HW: You never know what technology will…

JB: That’s right, you never do know.

HW: … will emerge in the in the next couple of years.

JB: Yes, yes—my mother lived until 90, so who knows?

HW: OK.

JB: ’Course, I also saw a study that says it doesn’t matter how long your mother lived.

HW: Oh.

JB: So that’s the bad news. Anyway, 40 years hence I think you will be living in a better world than we live in now. And the reason that will happen is because people like you will have worked hard to make it so. Because it only happens if you work hard to make it so. It doesn’t happen because you wish it would happen. You wish, you sit home and say, “Gee, I hope this comes out OK.” You have to do a little more than that.

HW: I agree. Any words for the rising electorate—people who are coming of age at a new time, the same way you were coming of age when you were starting college and a challenge, particularly as we go into immigration reform, I think we are going to see more success with the gay and transgender movement and marriage equality—any closing words for the Millennials or the rising electorate who have yet to make history the way you have?

JB: Well, they first have to be registered to vote. I am amazed at how many people—young, old, black, white, of every race, creed, and color—are not registered to vote. Or who are registered to vote but don’t think it’s their responsibility to turn out and actually vote. It’s frightening. I met a well-known rapper. I won’t mention his name, he’d be embarrassed. And somehow in the conversation he told me wasn’t registered, and he didn’t vote. And I said, “What? You’re not registered to vote?” And I was just amazed at him. I think I shamed him into doing so. And he became a vocal spokesman for the right to register and the right to vote. But there are many people out there who are listening to this who are not themselves registered. And they need to be ashamed. And they need to do something about it right now. And once they do that, they need to engage themselves in the political life of their communities wherever they live. They need to vote in every election for everybody from dog catcher to mayor to president of the United States. If they don’t do it, I’m going to find, hunt them down, and blame them for whatever bad thing that happens in the country because it will be their fault.

HW: OK, alright, well, thank you so much.

JB: Thank you.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Heidi Williamson is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.

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This is part of a special series: Roe at 40 Podcast Series

For more from this series, click here