Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Julian Bond, November 1 and 22, 1999. Interview R-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Tensions among civil rights organizations

Bond discusses the controversy surrounding John Lewis's March on Washington speech. He interprets the older activists' censure of Lewis's speech as conservative attempts to avoid alienating the white liberal political establishment. The result of Lewis's speech hence reflected and illuminated the generational and organizational differences between older civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and younger groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. While these differences widened the gap between activists, Bond argues that these differences made fundraising easier for the distinct groups.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Julian Bond, November 1 and 22, 1999. Interview R-0345. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Were you involved at all with drafting John Lewis's speech?
No, no, I didn't have anything to do with that.
What did you think of the controversy surrounding that speech?
Well, I really didn't know much about it at the time. James Forman and Courtland Cox and Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph and Bayard Rustin were really the principals involved in trying to get John to change his speech. That took place up on the platform where the Lincoln statue sits. So I was not involved in that at the time. When I found out about it later, quite shortly later, it just seemed to be typical of the desire of these older and more conservative civil rights organizations to sugarcoat the messages that were being delivered from the platform. We believed very strongly in what John was going to say even though I had no part in drafting what he was going to say. We believed very strongly in our position that the Kennedy civil rights bill was not adequate, that it was weak and that the Democratic and Republican parties were too much alike and neither one of them as strong for civil rights as they should have been. We were fearful that the march would turn into sort of a campaign rally for John F. Kennedy's reelection and didn't want it to have that kind of political overtone. So my afterthought was that this was just typical of the ways these guys operated.
When I heard Mary King speak and I asked her a question about the different civil rights organizations and different methods and the interactions, she termed it "sibling rivalry." I was wondering what you would have to say about that.
Yes, look at this way. Here are four or five organizations, very different kinds of organizations and working in overlapping but different ways. For example, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee believed in organizing people. That is if we could get leadership in a community and people to follow that leadership to build a movement, then we could go away and the movement would go on. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference believed in mobilizing people. That is to say marches, protests, and demonstrations, and we did that too. But that wasn't our main focus. Our main focus was trying to create something that would be in the community for months and years to come, some kind of organization because, quite obviously, fifty people together are stronger than one person standing alone. So we wanted to get as many people as possible involved. We were also profoundly democratic, with a small "d". We believed in group decisions. We believed in group organization. Our mentor was a woman named Ella Baker. Ella Baker used to say, "Strong people don't need strong leaders," because they themselves are strong. They don't need somebody saying, "Follow me," or "Do this" or something. So that put us at odds with SCLC because they had the strong leader, Martin Luther King. Even though we generally did whatever it was King said let's do. We didn't like the idea of someone saying, "Let's do this." We liked the idea of everyone saying, "What about this? What about that? Why don't we do this?" So anyway, here are all these organizations with overlapping styles, a common, or nearly common, agenda, but each one proud of its own identity because this identity is tied to our fund-raising efforts. If we participate in a demonstration and no one knows we're there, then we can't say, "Look at what we did," because no one knows that we did it. So my job, in part, and Mary's job was to make sure people knew what we were doing. In many places we weren't in actual competition with these groups, we were the only group. But we didn't want people to say, "Negroes marched on City Hall in Jackson, Mississippi." We wanted to say, "The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a march of Negroes on the City Hall in Jackson, Mississippi." So people in the North with big checkbooks could say, "Oh, I like that. Let me write a check." So part of it is a fight for organizational identity. Again just on the surface, people say, "Gee, why'd you have to do that? Couldn't you all work together in common cause?" Well, we were working together in common cause, but we were also fighting so we could say, "We're doing this. These other people are doing that. We don't think what they're doing is bad. But we think what we're doing is good," and we want people pay attention.