America has lost a great leader, and many of us have lost a good friend.
By the time Julian Bond was 20 years old, he had helped lead the sit-in movement that began dismantling official segregation in Atlanta and he had left the academic life of Morehouse College to help found the legendary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the communications director of SNCC, he worked to call attention of the rest of the world to the struggle by some of the poorest, most disenfranchised Americans to wrest political power from the white establishment in some of the most dangerous parts of the Jim Crow South. SNCC was the #BlackLivesMatter movement before there were hashtags.
By the time he was 30 years old, Julian Bond had been elected to the Georgia Legislature, whose all white members refused to seat him because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He was elected to his own vacant seat three times and seated only after a unanimous decision of the united states supreme court. Also before he was thirty he led an insurgent Georgia delegation to the 1968 Democratic Convention, where they unseated the segregationist “regular” democratic party delegation. And at that convention he was nominated for Vice-President – an office he was too young to win — in order to raise the visibility of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war forces in the Democratic party.
For those of us becoming active in the movement — especially those of us in the South — Julian Bond was an absolute hero. He had the courage under fire of the SNCC organizers. And he stood up to the whole Georgia power structure not only against racism but also against the war in Vietnam. He was cool.
The man who shook the world at an early age stayed engaged — as a movement builder and networker for our 21st Century movement. I first met him in 1970 when he and friends of mine from the Southern Students Organizing Committee worked together to create the Institute for Southern Studies.
He became Chairman of the NAACP in 1998 and worked with others to revitalize that old and respected organization. And he always sought to build a larger, more powerful progressive movement.
Julian was part of the core group who attended the first planning retreat that eventually gave birth to our economic-change organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.
In June 2004, I had the honor of introducing Julian at our Take Back Americaconference. We asked him to speak at a fascinating plenary with the two founders of MoveOn.org, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades. Everyone in the audience was transfixed as Julian imagined what SNCC organizing might have been like with the online networking, actions and fundraising that MoveOn were then pioneering. And Julian, Wes and Joan (who later helped launch Moms Rising) joined together to discuss how the work of the civil rights and anti-war movement had to be expanded to fight for the rights of women, families, LGBT people, and the rights of workers around the world.
Sunday night on PBS Newhour, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, another SNCC veteran, shared her memories of Julian — and declared that she was unprepared because she had just seen him at a Howard University forum with Black Lives Matter activists, and, though she had memories of him going back to the 1960s, he was still a man of the moment:
What Julian managed to do was something that most of us who were in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, didn’t do. He managed to spend his entire life in civil rights, not the sentimental civil rights of our SNCC days, but the civil rights of our time. And that’s why he was so respected.
In addition to his ongoing movement-building, Julian eventually became a professor and a scholar, teaching, among other places, at the school I attending in the 1960s, the University of Virginia. He was teaching Southern history and the movements of the 1960s, and in 1990 he invited me and another comrade from those days to take over one of his classes to talk to 300 of his students about the Virginia of the segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd machine — and the almost completely segregated UVa. And, since it was Julian Bond’s class, we were able to get the Charlottesville Daily Progress and the Cavalier Daily to come and cover a discussion of how things had changed at that campus and that Southern State — and how they had not changed enough.
Julian only recently retired from teaching at UVa, and in the process of moving on, he gave and interview to the University of Virginia Magazine that is worth reading. At the end, he was asked “What would you like your tombstone to say?” His answer was classic Julian:
I want to have a double-sided tombstone, so you have something on each side. And on one side, it’s going to say “Race Man.” A race man is an expression that’s not used anymore, but it used to describe a man–usually a man, could have been a woman too–who was a good defender of the race, who didn’t dislike white people, but who stood up for black people, who fought for black people. I’d want people to say that about me. He was a race man. There’s no implication here that white people are evil, just that black people are good people and they need somebody to fight for them, and I’m that person. The other side is going to say “Easily Amused,” because I am easily amused.
The obituary by Roy Reed that ran on the New York Times website on Sunday ended in a way that captured the easily-amused and poetic, soulful side of Julian Bond.
His most famous [piece of poetry] was perhaps a two-line doggerel that he dashed off after one too many overly concerned white students offended him by saying, “If only they were all like you.”
Look at that girl shake that thing,
We can’t all be Martin Luther King.