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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 414

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This is the grave of Julian Bond.

Born in 1940 in Nashville to Horace Mann Bond and Julia Bond, Julian grew up in a household where education mattered more than anything. His father was a college president after all. He graduated in 1957 from a Quaker prep school in Pennsylvania and went to Morehouse College. He dropped out in his senior year though. That’s because he became a rapidly rising leader in the civil rights movement.

A co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, he served as SNCC’s communications director from 1961-66, during which the organization went through monumental struggles, defeats, victories, and ideological transformations toward Black Power. He was also a leader in the desegregation campaigns in Georgia during these years, especially between 1960 and 1963. He edited SNCC’s paper The Student Voice too. In all of this, Bond had a very important job. Anytime a SNCC house was firebombed or a black church was burned or some other violence was inflicted, SNCC needed to publicize it and protest to Washington. What would undermine that more than anything was false or exaggerated claims. Bond was in charge of making sure that didn’t happen and garnered a reputation for being extremely cautious in the claims SNCC made. That’s an important skill.

In 1965, Bond ran for the Georgia state legislature and won an Atlanta seat. Seven other black candidates won election that year. As much as the whites hated it, the legislature was going to be desegregated. But to allow a leader of SNCC in, well, that was a step too far and the white majority decided to target him. The legislature voted 184-12 not to seat him. They claimed it was because Bond had publicly announced his opposition to the Vietnam War, but we all know that was not the most important reason, although certainly it contributed. Bond naturally appealed this to the federal courts. He lost his first round at the district court level, but when he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, it ruled 9-0 in his favor, deciding that the legislature had denied Bond his freedom of speech for saying it wasn’t seating him because of his stance on Vietnam. Bond then served in the state legislature from 1967-75. As a legislator, he was known for his work securing low-interest home loans for African-Americans, as well as for sickle cell anemia testing. Bond became a celebrity over this case as well. In 1968, he seconded the nomination for Eugene McCarthy at the disastrous Democratic National Convention. He was also the first black man in American history to have his name placed in nomination for the vice-presidency of a major political party. He immediately withdrew his name; after all, he was well under the constitutional requirement of being 35 years old.

After finally going back to Morehouse to finish his degree, which happened in 1971, Bond and Morris Dees started the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bond was the SPLC president from 1971-79 and remained on the board for the rest of his life. In 1986, Bond decided to run for Congress. But he was not the only civil rights legend who wanted that seat. Former SNCC president John Lewis also ran. And it was a really bitter and brutal campaign in which Lewis claimed Bond was a drug user and publicly challenged him to take a drug test, which Bond refused to do. Bond correctly noted that Lewis was wrong on the issue of drugs and claimed it was a McCarthyist attack. As much as I love Lewis, Bond was right about this. Lewis won though because he had tighter connections with the voters. By this time, and really for a long time before this, Bond was more a celebrity than a local activist. After all, he had hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977, among many other very high profile media appearance that included several movie roles. Bond had a lot of support from white donors for instance, whereas Lewis was a lot more deeply engaged in the community. Lewis of course defeated Bond. They did eventually reconcile.

In the aftermath, Bond left the Georgia legislature and became a professor. He taught at the University of Virginia from 1990 to 2012, with plenty of time off in there to teach at other schools. During this period, Bond became a major ally on gay rights, especially gay marriage. He frequently compared the discrimination Black Americans had long faced to what gay people still faced. In this, he often clashed with the leadership of the established civil rights groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, originally founded by Martin Luther King. Bond also became a climate activist and was arrested at the White House in an anti-Keystone XL Pipeline protest in 2013. Always media friendly, he routinely brutalized the Bush administration in his frequent television appearances and transferred that to the Tea Party during the Obama years. He especially liked comparing the extreme right to the Taliban. He was also chairman of the NAACP between 1998 and 2010. Bond died of heart disease in 2015.

Julian Bond is buried at Southview Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia. It is the backside of his parents’ grave. The interesting epitaph is something he planned for a long time:

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.

He didn’t have the double sided tombstone, but it is something nevertheless.

If you would like this post to visit other civil rights movement legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Fannie Lou Hamer is in Ruleville, Mississippi and Fred Shuttlesworth is in Birmingham. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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