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Postscript: Julian Bond (1940-2015)

August 17, 2015


The opening lyric from that old civil-rights song—“Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom”—may not have been written with Julian Bond in mind, but he personified it. As a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate, as a leader of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as an activist and a professor and a friend, he answered the call of justice every day. Julian passed away over the weekend, at the age of seventy-five. I will miss him terribly. He and I were children of the civil-rights movement and, in a way, grew up in it together.

I first met Julian in the summer of 1960, at one of the informal gatherings of the burgeoning Atlanta Student Movement. (Well, it might have been a party, which was one of the ways that the demonstrators de-stressed.) I was home in Atlanta, waiting for my desegregation lawsuit against the University of Georgia to work its way through the courts, and Julian was a rising senior at Morehouse College. Even then, his style of writing and thinking was evident in his work. In March of that year, he had helped draft an article called “An Appeal for Human Rights,” which ran as a full-page advertisement in several Atlanta-area newspapers. The document was forthright, elegant, powerful. “Today’s youth will not sit by submissively while being denied all the rights and privileges and joys of life,” it read. “We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time.” Segregation, it concluded, was “robbing not only the segregated but the segregator of his human dignity.” (As Julian made clear in 1967, when I interviewed him for Talk of the Town, he didn’t have much patience for embellishment. One of the hardest things about serving in the Georgia legislature, he told me then, “was getting used to the flowery language.”)
Although Julian’s main brief was as a theoretician and tactician, he also spent time on the front lines. He took to heart the teachings of Ella Baker, a leader from the older generation of black activists, who, in 1960, convened the meeting from which the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee (SNCC) emerged, with Julian as a co-founder. Baker’s invocation address, called “Bigger Than a Hamburger,” set the tone for the organization: its task was “to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination—not only at lunch counters but in every aspect of life.” The group was more militant, more in-your-face than the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the N.A.A.C.P.; Julian and his fellow-activists became known as the movement’s shock troops.

Julian left Morehouse halfway through his senior year to devote himself more fully to SNCC. (He was the son of a college president and came from a long line of educated black folks, and eventually he went back and got his degree.) That year, he became the managing editor of the Atlanta Inquirer, an upstart protest weekly, which was created to do what none of the white-owned papers or the more conservative black-owned ones would—tell the story of the Atlanta Student Movement in all its manifestations. By that point, I and my fellow-plaintiff in the University of Georgia case, Hamilton Holmes, had won, becoming the first African-American students to enroll there. I began working with Julian at the Inquirer on otherwise relaxing weekends home from the still tense UGA campus.

We settled into a predictable rhythm: the student protesters would stage their demonstrations in the morning, get arrested, make bail, and then come tell their stories to Julian, me, and the editor-in-chief, M. Carl Holman, a professor of English at Clark College. We took turns writing up the narratives as news stories, although I sometimes did my own reporting. I spent one Saturday, for instance, at Atlanta’s public hospital, Grady Memorial—where Hamilton later became the chairman of the orthopedic unit—chronicling the chaos in the emergency room. At one point, one of the young doctors showed me the path of a bullet that had gone through a man’s head by sliding an instrument into it. Julian loved that story. He was a patient mentor, just as Ella Baker had been to him, and he had a quiet sense of humor. He wasn’t the most energetic dancer, but at one of our parties, getting into the spirit of things, he wrote a poem:

See that girl
Shake that thing.
We can’t all be
Martin Luther King.
(He remembered it when I mentioned it to him during a visit, almost fifty years later.)
In 1965, Julian was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. His colleagues, however, refused to seat him, because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, and he didn’t assume office until 1967. He was twenty-eight years old. He continued to campaign around the country, not only for civil rights but also for human rights, not only at home but also in the global community. When Julian came to New York to give a talk to the Southern Conference Educational Fund, one of the oldest interracial civil-rights organizations in the country, I went to cover it for The New Yorker. In his address, Julian discussed the trajectory of the movement and how the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, had changed its tenor, making people complacent, making them think that the victory had been won. In his soft-spoken but firm and confident way, he went on to suggest that this apparent victory had sapped the movement’s support. “Lack of interest is more killing than lack of money,” he said. “Negroes must not forget race consciousness as long as they are victims of racism.”

Up until the day he left us, Julian never forgot that consciousness. He served as president of the Southern Poverty Law Center when it was founded and, in 1998, was elected chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., a post that he never could have imagined occupying during his years with SNCC. And his consciousness went beyond race—he also became a climate-change activist and an advocate for marriage equality. Julian Bond’s legacy surely lies in the fact that he steadfastly followed the movement’s dictum: keep on keepin’ on.

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