Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Changes in Activism

BOND: At the same time one gets the feeling, and I get the feeling being on a majority white campus, that today's students are nowhere near the activists they were in the period you're talking about, or in the previous 1960s. It's a different world, different demands on them, different expectations of them. But nonetheless the level of activism much, much lower.

COLE: Way down.

BOND: What accounts for that and how, if at all, can it be brought back up again?

COLE: If I had the solution to that, oh, would I spread it around like raindrops. I'm particularly conscious of this now in the aftermath of September 11th. You know, where are the teach-ins? And I'm not saying that we should have organized teach-ins that condemn the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Where are the teach-ins, where both sides are raised in support and in opposition? Where are the questions that were so much a part of the academy that I grew up in and that I participated in? Frankly, folk have gotten kind of comfortable, and in many ways I think more afraid to raise questions now than ever before. Perhaps students are right. Perhaps to do so means that they won't get into law school like they want to get into law school. Perhaps faculty are right; to raise those questions at a time when jobs are being frozen may mean that they get in fact frozen out. Perhaps it is a climate now, both of comfort in their new career possibilities, and fear that to raise questions will threaten all of that. That may be a part of it. Secondly, though, I think the end of the Cold War really did create a sense that everything is all right. You know, we have no more enemies. There is nothing to protest against anymore. The war in Vietnam is over. America is just fine -- that's really shameful for us to fall into that. And by us, I do mean the academy.

BOND: Do you think that it also may stem from young people thinking that while earlier generations were able to shift things, change things, end segregation, that they are not capable of doing it, that you can't fight City Hall now the way that you used to be able to? That institutions are more rigid, more resistant? So not only is the danger to your career, your life choices, so on, but it's futile?

COLE: I really do. And I'm really grateful to you for raising it, because it is a strong sense that I have, that students, and unfortunately too many folk in communities have lost the sense of power. The notion that they can be change agents. See I grew up -- to bring full circle to an earlier part of our conversation -- where it was assumed, it was only a matter of time we were going to get rid of Jim and Jane Crow. And today folk don't act as if they feel they can really re-invent their lives, reformulate their institutions. I think you're very right. It's a feeling of "this is just sort of the way it is."