Lives well lived, ones that are defined the impact that they have on others, are often animated by some deeply felt issue or cause. For Julian Bond, that issue was race: “I must admit to a certain prejudice, a bias. That is race. Most of my life has been colored by race, so much of my thinking focuses on race.” This admission begins one of the several of essays in his book, A Time to Speak, A Time to Act, which reflects on the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. Bond, who died on Saturday from complications of vascular disease, was indeed immersed, for the whole of his adult life, in the intractable questions of race and justice that extend to the depths of American society.
Bond’s commitment to race and activism, spanning more than a half-century, began most prominently with his role in co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. Serving as the organization’s communications director for the next five years, Bond determined early on that he was better suited for the public eye than the confines of a jail cell. In 1965, he was elected to the Georgia Legislature but did not take his seat until the following year, being obstructed from doing so by his fellow lawmakers on the basis of his public opposition to the war in Vietnam. Having been one of eight students enrolled in the only course ever taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bond was surely aware of the resistance that his opinions would encounter.
Just months after King’s assassination, Bond was nominated for Vice President of the United States at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention, although, at 28 years old, he was too young to qualify for the office. The nomination, while symbolic, was intended to draw greater attention to issues of poverty, racism, and war, issues that Bond and others felt were not adequately addressed in that forum.
Not content to work solely as a legislator, Bond helped to establish the Southern Poverty Law Center and served as its president from 1971 to 1979. His book of essays, published in 1972, demonstrated Bond’s characteristic candor and wit on issues as wide as Black political history and as narrow as identifying FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the “petty bully” running the “Federal Bureau of Intimidation.” Bond left behind the life of policymaking in 1986, after losing a hard-fought congressional race against renowned civil rights activist and old friend John Lewis. He later began speaking across the nation and teaching, most notably at the University of Virginia, which is seeking to establish an endowed professorship in his honor. In 1998, he ascended to the chair of the 64-member board of the NAACP, stewarding the organization for more than a decade in that role.
As the Library of Congress has recognized, Bond is a “living legend” whose shining example is one of sustained commitment to the struggle for racial justice. That commitment is evident to any casual observer of his life, and it is also noteworthy among those who knew him well. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a former SNCC activist, current delegate to the U.S. Congress for the District of Columbia, and Bond’s friend, observed that Bond not only survived the acute demands of activism in the early Civil Rights Movement, but managed to spend his entire life in civil rights, avoiding sentimentality and keeping pace with the issues of the day. Indeed, Bond’s public stances included everything from supporting statehood for the District of Columbia, to advocating for environmental justice and marriage equality.
Of all the labels and titles that could rightfully be appended to Bond—activist, politician, lecturer, commentator, professor—he wished to be remembered most as a “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.”
George C. Gardner III is a lawyer and writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @ggiii.