Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

NAACP Leadership

LEFFLER: Now, the last aspect I guess of your career that I'd like to talk about would be your involvement with the national NAACP. Now, of course, your national leadership once again as the national chair of the NAACP. In the earlier period of the 90's there was a lot of tension and struggle and difficulty within the NAACP, and for a number of years you were on the board there…

BOND: Right.

LEFFLER: Then are not re-elected to the board. You actually say at that point you essentially got eliminated from the board?

BOND: Yes, I did.

LEFFLER: I'd like you talk a little bit about your personal feelings through all that turbulence, and how you developed the strategy for helping to move the organization forward.

BOND: Let me start earlier than that. When I was with SNCC, we were a little contemptuous of the NAACP. It was slow moving. It appeared to us to be overly dependent on legal-isms to the exclusion of more activist things. It was not for us. That's why we formed this new organization. When I got to be in my late 20s and 30s living in Atlanta, SNCC was gone. The NAACP was there. And Atlanta had an excellent, excellent NAACP branch with a paid staff. Wonderful woman named Jondelle Johnson. I got on the board of the local NAACP and then I got elected president. From that, I got elected to the board, and I served on the board for about 16 years. Then this dispute arose with the then-chairman William Gibson -- who just passed away. I opposed him, and in retaliation he targeted me for defeat. I have a newspaper clipping: "Gibson Says Don't Vote for Bond." So I lost my seat on the board.

In that interim he -- the organization -- is mired in scandal. This all came to a head and he was defeated by one vote by Myrlie Evers. By this time I'm back on the board. We have to hire a new executive director and we hire Kweisi Mfume and he brings a real breath of fresh air to the organization. Then Ms. Evers decides she won't run for re-election after three terms, three one-year terms. Board members approach me and ask me if I'd run. Eventually I agreed to do so and campaigned and got elected in a contested election -- there were four other candidates running, and in a run-off election I won, and have since been re-elected four times unanimously without opposition, without dissent -- and saw this organization as a little backward, a little old-fashioned, terribly slow, riven by internal disagreements, and not disagreements over policy, not "Are we for affirmative action or are we against it?" Nothing like that. But personal disagreements -- fights among members of the board. The board described as a circular firing squad with all the guns pointed inward.

So I thought I have to overcome this somehow or the other. I have to make these people work together. So both building on something Myrlie Evers had done, which was forming a relationship with Harvard Business School, where we spend a weekend a year for the last four years, and where they've helped us enormously with these issues of self-governance and how a board behaves which has just been magical for us. Then working with the CEO because we had to fire or layoff 75 percent of our staff because we were four and a half million dollars in debt and working with him to rebuild the staff and bring it back up to strength once again. Then I was lucky enough to get a couple of donors to give us fairly large contributions, in the millions, and that, of course, money is a great salve to many, many wounds. So that helps us out a great deal.

But the big challenge has been to keep moving forward and to keep improving and not to get to a place where you say well, we're okay now. But to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. It's not easy to do because the board is so large. The organization is so large, and the organization is so democratic, small "d" democratic. People have said it suffers from an excess of democracy, because at every step the leadership is elected: The local president's elected. The state president is elected. The regional president is elected. The board is elected. We're all elected. And we're consumed all the time with these election battles and disputes. "I'm going to win." "No, you're going to win." "No you lose, you challenge…" So it's a tough, tough -- it is the toughest job I've ever had -- and it's not a paying job.

LEFFLER: But listening to you speak about this, just as you spoke about the Georgia legislature you talk in terms of others approaching you to run.

BOND: Um, hmm.

LEFFLER: So as a reflection on your leadership it's very interesting because it seems so consistent. You're not saying I decided I wanted this. You're saying and, just as Lonnie King did, it's like people approached you. You decided to step up to the plate. It happened.

BOND: Maybe the thing I decided myself was to run for Congress and I lost that. Maybe that's a lesson to me, to wait for somebody to ask. But at the NAACP Bishop Graves, who is a member of the board, respective member of the board, asked me to run and he said something very clever. He said, "I want to ask you to run for chair." He said, "Don't say no. Don't say anything, but don't say no." Then he got other people to call me and ask me. When two or three called me I said "maybe I have a shot at this."