SAN PABLO -- Social and economic inequities in modern times require more than marches and acts of civil disobedience, a famed civil rights leader said Friday.

To meet these challenges, activists need to redouble efforts toward opening higher education and opportunity to the poor and working class, Julian Bond told an audience of more than 200 at Contra Costa College's John & Jean Knox Center for the Performing Arts.

"Working to create equal opportunity for more people in America" must be the paramount goal, Bond said. "The real test of a nation's soul is how committed it is to this goal. Ensuring equal opportunity may therefore be the core human rights issue of our time."

Bond's speech -- which commanded a ticket price of $50 per attendee -- raised funds for Single Stop USA, a national nonprofit group aimed at helping low-income families and students navigate the web of public and private resources available to the working class. At Contra Costa College, the nonprofit has helped 1,400 students get more than $1 million in services and economic support since January 2012, said Single Stop USA CEO Elisabeth Mason.

The program Friday night included a host of state, county and local proclamations to honor Bond and civil rights-themed student performances. Dimensions Dance Theater delivered performances honoring civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer. In the Hamer performance, dancers emoted the beatings Hamer endured at the hands of Southern law enforcement agencies in response to her activism to secure voting rights in the 1960s.


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Mason also delivered remarks highlighting her program, which she said was key to providing upward mobility to low-income students.

"It's really about poverty and access to education," Mason said. Lauren Muntasir, a grandmother and former teenage mother, drew applause when she shared with the audience how Single Stop USA had helped her excel at Contra Costa College, which led to her acceptance into Cal State East Bay, where she will study sociology.

Bond, 73, laced his keynote address with his trademark style of impeccable comedic timing and cool criticisms of persistent inequality in American society.

Bond joked that Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he partnered as a civil rights pioneer in the 1960s, got the idea for his most famous phrase from Bond. King himself visited Contra Costa College to speak with students in the mid-1960s.

"He said that things were a nightmare," Bond said, prefacing the remark by saying he had asked King how conditions were for blacks before the civil rights movement took hold. "I said 'Doc, try "I have a dream."'"

King only taught one class at Morehouse College, Bond said, to a class composed of him and seven other students.

Julian Bond gave the keynote address at an event at Contra Costa College to raise funds for aid programs for low-income students.
Julian Bond gave the keynote address at an event at Contra Costa College to raise funds for aid programs for low-income students. ( Damian Dovarganes / AP file photo)

"I wish I had taken extensive notes during that class," Bond said, chuckling.

But Bond quickly turned to a more serious tone.

"Creating economic opportunity was always part of (the civil rights movement's) mission," Bond said.

Today, he said, opportunities are severely curbed for lower- and working-class Americans of all colors, and the Great Recession eroded generations of wealth-building for millions of families.

"The rich have been sitting at the banquet table," Bond said. "We have been on the menu."

We are living in an era of unprecedented income inequality, Bond said, and that imperils the key American ideal of social mobility.

"The economic differences between the rich and the middle class and the poor are much greater today than they have been at any time since the Gilded Age," Bond said.

Bond said the forces of entrenched wealth are seemingly overwhelming, noting that Wall Street profited after preying on lower-class communities with subprime loans and other "predatory" practices.

Facing these challenges, Bond said that California's vast community college system, with its mission of providing a springboard for working-class and nontraditional students, is more important than ever. He praised Single Stop as representing the kind of program that can empower the next generation.

"Single Stop program is a 21st-century-type solution," Bond said.

A host of local and state political leaders were on hand to praise Bond on Friday, including State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Richmond City Councilmembers Jovanka Beckles, Corky Boozé and Nat Bates.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.