David Duke and the resurgence of racial politics, on top of the Clarence and Anita Show, would seem to indicate that this is not the best of times for that war-horse of the civil rights movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But that is not the case, contends Gary Bledsoe, the president-elect of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP branches.
“We’ve had our wins and losses, and we’ve been embattled in the media, but not in the African American community,” Bledsoe says. “The election of Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania indicates that the American people are finally seeing the light. Matters concerning Hill, Thomas, and Duke have moved even George Bush to reassess his stance on civil rights, the extension of unemployment benefits, and national health care. I’ve read that Dan Quayle said the NAACP was out of touch, but that doesn’t concern me very much, because if we’re in touch with Dan Quayle, we’re in trouble.”
Bledsoe breaks the stereotype of a civil rights leader. He speaks in a soft, polite drawl and favors a broad-brimmed Stetson and lizard boots—Bubba traits he attributes to growing up in Odessa. The pearl braces on his two front teeth make him look positively boyish for a man of 39.
As an assistant state attorney general, Bledsoe says he experiences racism on a daily basis, from judges who still use what he calls “the big N word” to the kinds of citizens who are sitting in judgment of others. “It concerns me when I see what David Duke did,” he says. “It concerns me to think an African American would be tried by a jury of people who supported David Duke.” He backs calls for economic justice, bank reform, more-equitable intradistrict funding of public schools, and equal opportunity for all people: “We’re not talking affirmative action. We’re talking right or wrong.”
But in recent months, he has also had to respond to suggestions that the NAACP’s leadership has been undermined by black conservatives. “Just because they’ve got black faces doesn’t mean they share our sentiments,” he responds. “Most black conservatives wouldn’t be where they are without the NAACP. It galls me to see a professor attack affirmative action or Clarence Thomas try to slam the door shut at Yale Law School once he got through it. If it wasn’t for the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, Thomas wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”
In the same vein, he thinks white liberals are getting a bum rap from both blacks and whites. Many of the almost 150 NAACP chapters in Texas have white board members, and Bledsoe makes the point that whites were a driving force behind the civil rights movement in the sixties. “It was the white liberals who marched with me so I could play golf, go bowling, and try on clothes in downtown Odessa. Now I’m hearing that there’s something wrong with them, and instead, those people who tried to keep me out—the city officials, the sheriffs, the power brokers—they’re my friends. I prefer to adhere to what Darrell Royal says, ‘You dance with who brung ya.’”
What frustrates Bledsoe most are issues such as welfare, in which the discussion of race serves a hidden agenda. “There still needs to be welfare reform,” he says. “It takes a lot away from incentive. I’m all for workfare. But welfare is not a black problem. The vast majority on welfare are white.”
He wants to know why there aren’t similar howls of indignation over spending abuses by S&L bankers. “No one’s talking about their tax money going to pay for those fat cats,” he says. “No one talks about the farm subsidy programs, where rich people are paid millions not to grow things. It’s amazing how all this anger about government spending is directed at little people. Look at how the courts treated Cullen Davis versus how they treated Clarence Brandley and Lenell Geter.”
Being the head of the Texas NAACP makes Bledsoe something of a lightning rod. “I get called names by people who don’t even know me,” he says. “I get hate mail.” But that has only toughened his tough hide. “I believe what I am doing is in the teachings of the Bible. The book of Matthew said a house divided cannot stand—a divided house is what we have here. I work with a lot of these good ol’ boys. Many of them got to know me as me.” But even that works both ways, he says, smiling. “I like country music, and my father is a Roy Orbison freak. Sometimes, my black friends look at me and whisper, ‘I dunno about Bledsoe.’ ”