Remembering Julian Bond – posted 8/23/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/29/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 8/29/2015 under the title, “Justice loses one of its most thoughtful warriors”.
When I think of Julian Bond, the first words that come to mind are grace, humor and wit. These are not the words you might expect for a battle-hardened, long-time civil rights activist. Bond died on August 15 from complications of vascular disease.
My initial awareness of Bond dates back to the mid-1960’s when he became nationally famous. After passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1964, Bond ran for the Georgia House of Representatives. At that time he was 25 years old. He had dropped out of Morehouse College to work for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee also known as SNCC. Bond was SNCC’s communication director. In that capacity, he travelled around the South, organizing civil rights and voter registration drives.
In 1965, gaining 82% of the vote, Bond won election to the Georgia House. However, the Georgia House refused to seat him. A few days before Bond was scheduled to take office, he had publicly supported a SNCC press release opposing the Vietnam war. Bond also voiced support for draft resisters.
At the time, Bond’s position on the war was not winning popularity contests among white Georgia legislators. The Georgia House accused Bond of treason because of his anti-war position. By a vote of 184-12, the Georgia House denied Bond his seat and declared the seat vacated. Bond then won two follow-up special elections which had been set up to unseat him. Each time, the Georgia House refused to recognize the election results.
Bond sued and amazingly, the federal court in Georgia sided with the action of the Georgia House. Bond had to take his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 for Bond, holding that the Georgia House had denied Bond’s freedom of speech. The court decision upheld Bond’s right to political office. Among others, Dr. King had publicly supported Bond. These events made Bond a national figure.
Bond was early among activists in linking prosecution of the Vietnam war with persecution of Black people at home. He explained this more fully in 1967, stating:
“My position is that things that the United States does overseas are related to its behavior toward people inside the country and that there’s a relationship between what I consider our aggressive behavior in Vietnam and the treatment of minority groups inside the United States, that taken separately, both are wrong, and taken together, they’re even wronger. I imagine that – or rather I am of the opinion that our involvement in Vietnam is wrong, it’s illegal, it’s immoral, it’s un-Christian, it’s un-Buddhist, it’s un-Jewish, it’s un-Catholic; we ought not be there; we ought to disengage ourselves; and that there will never be decent treatment for minority people in this country until we begin to concentrate on freedom and justice and equality for those at home and stop worrying about puppet dictatorships and despotic governments in Southeast Asia.”
Bond had been very affected by the murder of his SNCC colleague, Sammy Younge. Younge was the first Black college student murdered in the civil rights movement. He had been an enlisted service member in the Navy where he served two years before a medical discharge and the start of his college career. In January 1966, Younge was shot in the back of the head by a white service station attendant at a Tuskegee gas station. Younge had been trying to integrate a “Whites Only” bathroom. Later an all-white jury acquitted Younge’s murderer. Bond said he learned from Younge’s example that even if you were a veteran, they would still shoot you down if you worked for civil rights in America.
In 1968, at the infamous Chicago Democratic convention, Bond was nominated to become Vice-President. He declined the nomination as he was only 28 years old. The Constitution requires vice presidents to be 35. Supposedly, Bond always liked telling that story.
Bond went on to serve 4 terms in the Georgia House and 6 terms in the Georgia State Senate. From 1998 to 2010 he was Chairman of the NAACP. Along with Morris Dees, he helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center.
There are a number of funny stories about Julian. Ben Jealous, former CEO of the NAACP, told one such story on Amy Goodman’s show, Democracy Now!. Jealous had asked Julian about his role in the famous 1963 March on Washington. Julian responded that his job at the march was to pass out Cokes to people who were really famous. Jealous said. “So what was the high point for you?”. Julian replied, “it was when Sammy Davis Jr. looked at me, winked and snapped his finger and pointed at me and said, “You know kid, you’re cool.”
Julian did have movie star good looks. He had a debonair quality and genuine charisma. He actually hosted Saturday Night Live one time in 1977.
In a Washington Post story after Julian died, his wife, Pamela Horowitz was quoted, saying:
“He had a wonderful sense of humor. You know that got him through the serious things he dealt with all his life. He used to joke that on his tombstone, one side would say “Race man” and the other side would say ‘Easily amused’. ”
Bond had a way with words. There are many good Julian Bond quotes. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Obama is to the tea party as the moon is to werewolves.”
“Violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving 6 years worth of education.”
“Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate.”
The journalist George Curry wrote that he always remembered a poem authored by Julian:
“Look at that girl shake that thing
We can’t all be Martin Luther King.”
Bond remained an activist until the end. He was not narrow. Along with 47 other people including NASA climate scientist James Hansen, he was arrested at a 2013 White House protest against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He also was a strong supporter of LGBT rights. On gay marriage, he said, “Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality and that is what gay marriage is.”
In his last public speech in May 2015 at an event entitled “Vietnam: Power of Protest Conference” Bond said the following:
“We practiced dissent then. We must practice dissent now. We must as Dr. King taught us. “move beyond prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.” As King said then, and as even more true now, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Julian Bond was a warrior for justice who never quit. It is hard to believe he is gone. He will be missed.