Julian Bond made history for the first time as a young activist in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and was the driving force in the organization’s incomparable Communications Department. In the late 1960s he took his activism into the Georgia legislature and after two decades there he returned to communications, using the skill he honed in the Civil Rights Movement to teach, interpret, and help shape our understanding of the movement that he and others propelled forward. Throughout his life, he made and analyzed history, using his public stature, movement work, and intellectual skills to battle for justice. When he passed away prematurely in August 2015, there was a huge outpouring of love and loss.
Jeanne Theoharis, who learned movement history in one of Julian Bond’s classrooms and worked closely with him in recent years to open the Rosa Parks Papers to the public, tried to manage her grief by writing, “What Julian Bond Taught Me,” published in The Nation two days after his death. I strongly related to her description of what she had learned from Mr. Bond, and how her relationship with Julian grew from student to colleague and friend. In fact, Theoharis spoke for many and her essay prompted movement historian John Dittmer to ask the OAH Program Committee to add a panel that would give conference participants an opportunity to pay tribute to Bond, reflecting on the many ways he influenced us personally and contributed to our nation’s history.
With considerable support from the committee and OAH staff, John, Jeanne, and I pulled together a panel, “Remembering Julian Bond,” which I chaired. The panel was composed of people who knew Bond in different eras and contexts, including film producer Judy Richardson, a SNCC colleague who was a series producer for Eyes on the Prize; author Taylor Branch, whose friendship with Julian went back to 1968 Georgia politics; scholar Theoharis, who took Julian’s class on the Civil Rights Movement as a Harvard undergraduate; historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, who met Bond at Morehouse College, their shared alma mater; and law professor Timothy Lovelace, who worked with Bond while earning undergraduate, law, and history Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia. While we were all spilling over with cherished memories and appreciation for Bond as historical actor, teacher, speaker, activist, and friend, we tried to be brief, leaving time for members of the audience to offer their own tributes. More than 50 people attended and many offered comments and examples that paralleled and extended the panelists’ comments.
Judy Richardson met Bond in 1963 when they were both working in SNCC’s Atlanta office, which she described as “a beehive of activity—filled with young people who were changing the world as I knew it.” She highlighted Bond’s Communications work, which included writing press releases about SNCC’s efforts to register Black voters. These were aimed at securing publicity for the project and at helping to protect workers who were being beaten, arrested, and even murdered by white vigilantes and lawmen. (Bond’s last tweet addressed the franchise, observing that “We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act without the Voting Rights Act.”) As a SNCC staffer, Bond also helped craft speeches, like the one delivered by John Lewis at the March on Washington. Richardson emphasized both that the speech was “truly participatory” and that it highlighted economic inequality—an issue Bond spoke out about throughout his life.
After the Voting Rights Act passed in August 1965, SNCC sought ways to translate Black access to the vote into political power, and Bond was persuaded to run for the Georgia legislature. Richardson was his office manager and only office staffer, in a campaign modeled on SNCC’s “grassroots organizing.” Richardson’s most enduring image is of “driving Julian to a Sunday meeting of the Red Rosebud Savings Club” with about ten “elderly, low-income, black ladies.” These women registered considerable pride in Julian—”at his intelligence and his demeanor.” “But,” Richardson explained, “it was when he began talking that they understood he was not your typical politician. Because Julian didn’t just tell them about his platform—he asked what they wanted in that platform: this was a SNCC political campaign. And so the women talked about the things—big and small—that they wanted for themselves and their families. And Julian listened.”
In her presentation, Richardson mentioned in passing that even though Bond won the election, he “was initially denied his seat [by the Georgia legislature] because he supported SNCC’s anti-Vietnam War statement.” Tim Lovelace took up the story of Bond’s battle to actually occupy the seat he had been elected to, focusing on the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion that the Georgia legislature must seat Bond. Lovelace explained that the Court ruled that the Georgia legislature had overstepped in questioning Bond’s loyalty, improperly limiting speech and suppressing public discussion which should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” In fact, Chief Justice Earl Warren asserted that this was especially true of elected officials, writing, “Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them.” Panelists and audience members testified to Julian’s repeated willingness to take controversial and occasionally unpopular stands. As Richardson pointed out, his actions with the Georgia legislature “showed the kind of principled stand that he never, ever gave up—for anything or anyone.” Lovelace added that as a professor at the University of Virginia, Bond drew on his anti-war experiences to encourage another generation of students to stand up against the United States’ unilateral intervention in Iraq. Speaking with, as Lovelace noted, “his velvet voice,” Bond reminded students “that dissent could indeed be patriotic.”
Taylor Branch met Bond in 1968 when they were both involved in the Georgia Loyal National Democrats’ challenge of the traditional (white supremacist) Democratic Party delegation in Georgia, led by Governor Lester Maddox. Their effort to represent Georgia at the Democratic Convention in Chicago was modeled on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge and was partially successful. (Both Georgia groups were seated, though most of the Lester Maddox-led delegation left the convention.) Branch recalled many long conversations with Bond and his role as Bond’s aide-de-camp, ironing his shirts and calling his wife. More significantly, Branch credits Bond for insisting on a broad collaboration “that included all factions feuding with each other—supporters of Gene McCarthy, the late Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey,” every group except the Maddox supporters. In retrospect, Branch believes that this “inclusive” approach became the model for the national Democratic Party. He also recalls that even as Julian was nominated for Vice President, and declining with modesty and humor because he was too young, he was keeping up with the top ten pop music chart.
Taylor Branch knew well this side of Julian Bond that wasn’t always evident to the public. In addition to being a principled activist and compelling speaker, Bond was a poet and music enthusiast with a wicked sense of humor and a passion for the “Four Freshmen,” among others. In 1986, Bond ran for Congress and was defeated by long-time friend and SNCC colleague John Lewis in what became a nasty campaign. Branch, in an amusing story that illustrated Bond’s perpetual search for the quirky and interesting, described how Dillard University conferred honorary degrees on Lewis, Bond, and himself, speculating that he was included to help defuse the tension between the former friends. When the ceremony was completed, the group headed out for a meal at Lucky Cheng’s, where their cross-dressing server immediately sat in John Lewis’s lap. Julian’s wife Pam Horowitz, who was in the OAH audience, confirmed that she and Julian had picked the restaurant—known for its flamboyant “transvestite waitresses” (as they were known in that era)—and her broad smile made clear that they had thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected moment. According to Branch, the somewhat shy and personally conservative Lewis was initially flustered, but quickly recovered and engaged the waiter in good humor.
Bond had many interests and many connections. The Barnes Foundation, a Philadelphia art museum, counted for both. (When Julian’s father Horace Mann Bond was President of Lincoln University, his friendship with Dr. Albert C. Barnes led to the school’s important role on the board overseeing the Barnes Foundation and its extraordinary art collection.) Branch described how strange it felt to be at the museum talking with Julian, while listening to a recording of Julian describing the art! Bond, with a beautiful and distinctive voice, was a frequent narrator. At the last minute, Hasan Kwame Jeffries was unable to participate in the panel, but at an earlier tribute to Bond, he described himself as part of the “Eyes on the Prize” generation, highlighting that, for many, many people, Julian Bond’s narration of “Eyes on the Prize” made him, quite literally, the “voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” As narrator, Julian was present at a production screening of an early cut of “Eyes” and Richardson recalled that when the projector broke down, she was drafted to lead the audience in a freedom song. Judy, who says she “doesn’t sing,” immediately ran over to Julian and said, “‘We need to sing a Freedom Song.'” She continued, “Of course, as many of you know, Julian didn’t sing either. But he didn’t care–he wasn’t proud and he loved music: particularly Freedom Songs… and Ray Charles… and Motown. So sing we did… and with great energy– ‘This Little Light of Mine, Ain’t gonna let no projector turn me ’round….'”
Jeanne Theoharis brought the conversation back to Bond’s extraordinary skill as a teacher, where he regularly worked magic, as well as his generosity as a mentor, colleague, and friend. She recalled Bond’s ability to bring the movement to life and how he made it clear that “The civil rights movement was not created by presidents or charismatic speakers but by the efforts and freedom visions of everyday local people possessing great courage and vision.” And by doing that, she notes, it “became possible to imagine how we do it again.” Any number of audience members made similar points. For example, Christopher Strain, professor at Florida Atlantic who also took an undergraduate Civil Rights Movement class with Bond, insisted, “Professor Bond taught the story he lived and studied to multiple generations of younger Americans, the Gen-Xers and Millennials, who because of him now understand and appreciate that saga. His greatest legacy as scholar-activist may lie in making the struggle for Black equality so accessible to so many people.”
In addition to his classroom teaching, Bond remained an extraordinarily popular speaker, analyzing past and present with wit and humor. Moreover, his development of the phrase “master narrative,” clearly illustrates so much of what is wrong with the typical portrayal of the movement in popular culture and most school textbooks and provides an extremely helpful tool for historians and teachers. He also wrote countless introductions, prefaces, and book blurbs. In fact, as Strain observed, many of us dreamed of a day when Bond might put his stamp of approval on our work. Cheryl Greenberg, a Trinity College professor who helped organize a critically important SNCC Conference in 1988, told us that when Julian Bond asked her to deliver a note to her colleague and his SNCC friend Jack Chatfield, she delivered the message, but kept the note. To this day, she has the piece of paper where Bond told Chatfield, “I just met your very attractive colleague.” I can personally attest that she’s not the only person to save and treasure a note from Julian, no matter how mundane.
Julian Bond made history as a young man, and kept on making it throughout his life. In recent years, he took on the George W. Bush Administration and called the Tea Party the Taliban wing of American politics. He was arrested for chaining himself to the White House to protest the Keystone Pipeline in 2013. His most important recent contribution might be his outspoken, persistent, activist support of gay rights, which also came up on the panel and in discussion. During his tenure as chair of the NAACP he worked hard on internal education and was thrilled when—prompted by younger, more impatient board members who insisted that the organization take a stand—the board voted in favor of marriage equality. That legacy, like so many, lives on and was evident in the days before our panel when the Mississippi NAACP took a strong position against Mississippi’s (anti-LGBT) “bathroom” bill. In the earlier tribute, Jeffries said one of his favorite Bond quotes is, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.”
Julian Bond was smart, handsome, and terrifically funny. Taylor Branch observed that he was “militant and personable,” full of “humor and principle.” He acted, agitated, analyzed, taught, inspired and, as Jeanne reminded us, considered himself a “hopeless optimist.” Julian was simultaneously friendly, down-to-earth, and larger-than-life. His passing is a tremendous loss for those closest to him, and also for countless students, the history profession, and anyone who believes in justice. At an OAH meeting on leadership, we were privileged to remember Julian Bond. Though we will carry his legacy into the future, his passing has left an irreplaceable gulf. We miss him…
 Grace Glueck, “Small University Gaines Control of the Barnes Foundation, New York Times, Oct. 19, 1989. Accessed on June 22, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/19/arts/small-university-gains-control-of-the-barnes-foundation.html?pagewanted=all