In the Fire of Activism - Julian Bond’s Life in Politics and Protest
In May of 1969, Ebony magazine ran a profile of Julian Bond, the activist and civil rights leader who had recently been reelected to the Georgia House of Representatives. With the United States mere weeks away from putting a man on the moon and the war in Vietnam still raging, the magazine wanted to take stock of where Black America found itself at the end of the decade. It was a moment of both retrospection about the civil rights movement and excitement about what the future held for African American politics. Yet Bond had been fighting for freedom and justice for more than a decade, and it showed. Ebony’s David Llorens wrote, “Attractive cat that he is, Julian Bond looks tired.”
The profile sought to examine what it meant for a radical stalwart, struggling against a broken system from the outside, to become a politician struggling to effect change from within it. Bond’s shift “from protest to politics,” as Bayard Rustin put it in an article earlier in the decade, was a measure of how far the movement had changed Southern society. That Bond was one of the first Black people to serve in the Georgia legislature generations after Reconstruction was also a measure of how much further the nation as a whole had to go.
After describing Bond’s work as a state representative, his speaking tours at colleges, and his deepening involvement in the Democratic Party as its New Deal coalition started to unravel, Llorens moved on to discuss the twin pillars of pride and ambivalence that supported Bond’s new role. These were the same pillars that held up the aspirations and fears of so many African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement. As Llorens wrote, “Julian Bond, as a politician, represents hope for the freedom of black people,” but it was a hope “entirely dependent upon the possibility that white people are capable of a humane and non-racist America.” For Llorens, this hope was real and somewhat tangible. But as he noted at the end of the passage, it depended on a radical change in the thought and action of white Americans—something that in 1969 still appeared far off because of a continuation of the “backlash politics” that had defined American political, social, cultural, and intellectual discourse ever since Reconstruction.
That mix of felt urgency and anxious uncertainty about how much change could be made in American society would define Bond’s efforts for much of his career. His time in office, like his time as an activist, would be characterized by both his hopes for greater social equality and the continuing need to fight for such change when these hopes were too often thwarted. This tension was central to nearly all of his writing, much of which is now collected in a new book, Race Man, edited by the historian Michael G. Long.
Race Man captures the full output of Bond’s long and distinguished career, first as an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, then as a member of the Georgia legislature (in the House and later in the Senate), then as a traveling academic who taught about his experiences in the social upheavals of the ’60s, and finally as a writer and aging lion of the civil rights movement still fighting to hold on to the ideals of his youth. Along the way, the book also makes clear a set of themes and quandaries that have troubled so much of the history of the American left: What is lost in the movement from protest to politics? How can lasting change be achieved in the face of unsatisfying compromise? How can radicals and activists carry the torch of emancipation and equality in an age in which both major parties and many voters appear, at best, apathetic to meaningful change and, at worst, downright hostile to it?
Bond’s years as an activist also offer a guide through the intellectual and political history of the left in the second half of the 20th century. As Long argues in his introduction, Bond’s importance to the history of the United States and the American left in particular is nearly impossible to overestimate today. Very few Americans, he writes, “had sought more consistently and doggedly to establish solid connections between the black civil rights movement and the many progressive movements it sometimes unpredictably inspired.”
Julian Bond was born in 1940 in Nashville. His father, Horace Mann Bond, was the first president of Fort Valley State University in Georgia and later became the first Black president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, both historically Black institutions. While serving as a college president, Horace Bond participated in the intellectual ferment of the World War II and early Cold War years. He did considerable research to support the NAACP’s arguments in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 and served as a prominent civil rights advocate during the period. The elder Bond’s participation in the rarefied world of African American educators and intellectuals meant that his son was exposed to many of the leaders of Black America from an early age. A famous image of Julian Bond as a young boy, for example, shows him side by side with the actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson. The photograph itself is a testament to the intergenerational links between the different civil rights cohorts.
Yet Bond’s early exposure to the intellectual creativity and political activism of Black America would hardly shield him from the racism and violence spawned by white supremacy. In the Jim Crow South, Bond saw racism and discrimination all around him—a radicalizing experience that never left him, even after he and his family moved to Pennsylvania when his father became the head of Lincoln University. Bond’s growing politicization throughout the ’50s was only deepened by his years at the George School, a prep school founded by Quakers, where he began to develop his long-term fascination with pacifism.
In 1957, Bond returned to Georgia to attend Morehouse College. Long a hotbed of Black struggle and uplift, the school helped launch his career in civil rights activism. He met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 while at Morehouse, and that year he cofounded, with fellow student Lonnie King, the Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights, which eventually led to his involvement in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bond immediately understood the significance of SNCC and the role that students could play in expanding the civil rights movement. The younger generation of Black Americans was ready to use new tactics to fight for the kind of social change their parents and grandparents sought in previous eras. Reflecting on the rise of these new organizations, Bond wrote, “The struggle for human rights is a constant fight, and one which the students do not plan to relinquish until full equality is won for all men.”
Against the backdrop of African nations declaring their independence abroad and civil rights agitation growing at home, 1960 saw a wave of sit-ins, starting in Greensboro, N.C. Four students at North Carolina A&T, a Black college, decided to stage a sit-in, adopting the tactics of nonviolent direct action already being used by various civil rights organizations. Word of the sit-ins spread across the South, spurring even more sit-ins as well as Bond’s participation in Atlanta. “Why don’t we make it happen here?” Lonnie King said to Bond in February 1960. That brief conversation, between two young men who yearned to be part of the great moral and political issue of their age, sparked Bond’s lifelong service to the movement.
Bond participated in the sit-ins in Atlanta that year and in a whirlwind series of campaigns across the South as the communications director of SNCC. Leaving Morehouse to dedicate himself to this work full-time, Bond, like many other young Black Americans, accepted that he would have to relinquish the comforts of the college campus and risk life and limb in the fire of activism. At this time, he began to think in broader terms about the idea of human rights, looking beyond America’s shores to recognize the violence and oppression that the country inflicted on various peoples of color elsewhere—an internationalism that he would soon marry to his domestic egalitarianism.
By the mid-’60s, after five years of working with SNCC, Bond began to grow frustrated. While he recognized the changing nature of struggle, he had always imagined SNCC as an organization that would embrace everyone, and he became worried about its increasingly separatist politics. “I didn’t like the direction it seemed to be taking,” he recalled, especially as SNCC embraced the idea of becoming an exclusively Black organization.
Despite Bond’s ambivalence about SNCC’s separatist turn, the organization continued to exert a major influence on his life, especially with its anti-imperialist politics in the middle of the decade. SNCC denounced the Vietnam War, and Bond grew increasingly active in anti-war efforts. He also began to consider running for office. In early 1965, Rustin made his appeal to civil rights activists to turn “from protest to politics,” arguing that the problems they would continue to face, even after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, required more than demonstrations. By then, Bond was preparing a run for the Georgia House of Representatives, and he was joined by the many different strands of the Black freedom struggle—the mainstream civil rights movement, Black nationalists, and the growing number of African Americans active in the Democratic Party—that were also making the move.
After his election, Bond found himself at a curious intersection of local, national, and international politics when the state House refused to seat him because he had endorsed SNCC’s anti-war stance. SNCC, Martin Luther King Jr., and other activists rallied to defend Bond’s right to represent his constituency in Atlanta. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled, 9–0, in Bond v. Floyd that his right to free speech had been violated by the state House’s vote to deny him a seat.
After Bond became a legislator, he found that more of his peers were following in his footsteps. People like John Lewis, Marion Barry, and Jim Clyburn, after years in the streets demanding change, were now running for office as they sought to secure and extend the gains they had helped win. It seemed the logical next step, even if the change that could be achieved in state legislatures sometimes appeared small compared with what could be done at the federal level. And yet, as Llorens wrote in Ebony, that kind of work mattered as well: Basic services like streetlights, garbage removal, sewage, repairing roads, and draining water from flooded basements were “‘some of the things we need’ as Julian sees it, and he takes pride in being able to use his political weight to deliver them. ‘Those are things my constituents weren’t always able to get in the past,’ he says. Nor are most of his constituents, who…are victims of poverty, apt to forget the water removed or the street repaired.”
The essays in Race Man nicely illustrate this trajectory from college activist to elected official (and beyond). Broken into 10 sections, the book traces Bond’s political formation throughout these periods of his life. The problems of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and misogyny were his fights throughout, even if they all changed shape. From the struggle against Jim Crow to the battle for LGBTQ rights, he remained convinced that it was necessary to agitate on behalf of the powerless outside the halls of power, but as he got older, he became convinced one had to do it from inside them as well. Whether as an activist struggling for voting rights or as a politician in the Georgia legislature redrawing district boundaries, Bond insisted that only through a combination of movements and policy could social change be achieved.
Bond’s essays capture the intellectual world that inspired him and that he helped inspire in turn. Though dedicated to egalitarian politics, he often found himself in heated debate with other elements of the left. This was especially true in the late ’60s, as the hope of nonviolent civil disobedience peacefully changing American society began to buckle under the strain of Vietnam, the half-hearted War on Poverty, and the ever-present specter of white backlash. The rise of the Black power movement offered Bond and other civil rights activists a unique challenge: They embraced many key components of this more radical turn but also struggled to find their way among its constituency, one that increasingly seemed to view the gains they had won as limited and incomplete.
Of course, in many ways those gains were incomplete, and reading Bond’s response to his more radical contemporaries, one can see that he might have missed how their militant spirit—not to mention their ability to continue to find common cause with social movements all over the world—helped, in the long run, to solidify the reforms he and his colleagues had won. An example of this is seen in his writings about South Africa and the growing movement to divest from the apartheid state, in which Bond sounded far more like his more radical peers. “There is an inseparable connection between black Africa and black America,” he argued in 1978 while participating in a protest against a Davis Cup match between the United States and South Africa in Nashville. This was not a coincidence: After all, Bond was also in pursuit of an equality far greater than the federal government was willing to offer, and the civil rights liberalism that their protest spawned was, in their view, only the beginning, not the end point. Likewise, Bond, who hewed steadfastly to pacifism early in his public life, also began to doubt, with his more radical colleagues, its efficacy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and while he lauded the achievements of the sit-ins, he came to recognize the clear limits of early civil rights activism. Indeed, that was one of the reasons he turned to electoral politics.
Bond’s ambivalence about the growing radicalism of SNCC was also rooted in his desire for more concrete action. Intimately aware of the organization’s internal discord, he concluded that it had become mired at times in what he called “too much democracy” and a lack of decision-making by its leaders. He did not appear to question SNCC’s democratic goals, but he felt that by 1967 its leadership was no longer taking responsibility for the group’s decisions, in terms of both immediate tactics and long-term strategies.
One policy change in particular frustrated him: the separatism that no longer sought to build a multiracial membership in SNCC. Bond opposed this separatism on principle as well as for practical reasons, writing in 1967 that it would lead to “near unanimous condemnation” and cause SNCC activists to narrow the scope of their activities, “effectively contained by their own unwillingness to trust the ‘outside world.’” For Bond, part of the lesson of the ’60s was that activism alone was not enough; one had to have a programmatic plan of action for both grassroots organizing and building political power in the face of rampant white backlash.
Once in office, that was exactly what Bond attempted to do. He wanted to find a way around the dead end that movement politics appeared to face in the late ’60s and the political weaknesses of white liberal complacency in the early ’70s. While serving in the Georgia legislature, he amassed a national reputation, and by 1972, he began contributing serious ideas to the political ferment of that era.
Bond participated in the discussions across the South that led to the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind. His criticism of both the American left and mainstream liberalism grew more pointed as the decade progressed, when he repeatedly expressed his deep ambivalence—if not outright hostility—toward the presidential campaign and then presidency of former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. “Southern Baptists are fond of saying that ‘prayer changes things,’” Bond wrote. “Jimmy Carter’s religiosity has certainly had that effect on him, in fact has changed him from left to right to center so many times that converts to the Carter cause ought to take a cue from an earlier apostle, Thomas, who doubted.” In the end, Bond was one of the few mainstream Black civil rights activists turned politicians who refused to back Carter during his 1976 run.
For Bond, Carter’s candidacy—as well as his backing by so many prominent African Americans—was less a betrayal than a reminder of how weak the Black vote was as a bloc within or, if need be, outside the Democratic Party. “American politics has always been group politics,” Bond wrote in 1977, during the first year of Carter’s administration, and Black movements and politicians needed to embrace this fact and form a cohesive electoral faction.
Bond’s arguments mirrored those put forth a decade earlier in the book Black Power by Charles V. Hamilton and the future Kwame Ture about the necessity for independent political action, now applied to electoral politics. And he was not wrong, either. During Reconstruction, Southern Black men formed the backbone of the Republican Party below the Mason-Dixon Line and thus wielded considerable power. During the New Deal era, both major parties sought Black voters while carefully trying to not antagonize pro-segregation white Southerners. In the ’70s, with the New Right on the rise and liberalism—as well as the broader ideas of social democracy—under threat across the Western world, Bond believed it was more urgent than ever for Black Americans to acquire sustained political power. “The sooner we realize the difference between elections and governing, the better able we’ll be to form ourselves into a political bloc,” he wrote.
This came, ironically, after Bond argued in 1972 that “coalition politics always weakens at least one partner in the coalition rather than strengthens both partners” (a fear Hamilton and Ture also voiced). Such questions, of course, are still with us, especially concerning the direction of the Democratic Party and whether it has taken generations of Black voters for granted.
One of the advantages of Race Man is that instead of shuffling Bond’s writings together by theme, Long presents them in chronological order so we can chart Bond’s evolution as well as his consistency. We can see his thinking change over time on a wide variety of topics—sometimes dramatically—and while we can see the shifts in his tactics and strategies, we also see just how consistent his principles remained. However, the book’s chronological structure slightly overdetermines Bond’s changes: We lose sight of the complicated nature of the broader civil rights and Black power movements, and at times it can be difficult to situate his arguments in the context of national politics and international tumult. From almost the outset of his career, Bond was writing from within the milieu of a Black freedom movement that inspired and was inspired by other movements in pursuit of freedom, justice, and equality elsewhere in the world.
This is why Bond’s seamless movement from domestic campaigns to international policy mirrored a broader awareness among Black Americans of the need to get more involved in global affairs. It was also why there were sometimes moments of fierce friction, as displayed in the arguments Bond had in the ’70s with the growing environmental movement. Pleading with its champions to look past a narrow politics of conservation and local resistance, he insisted, much like climate change activists today, that “environmental pollution is only a symptom of the moral and political pollution at its core…. Long before industrial filth fouled the rivers, lakes, and air of this continent, the bitter salt of slaves’ sweat and tears soured the [once] fertile soil and the blood of noble red men soaked the fields and plains.”
Bond’s insistence that the environmental movement’s rhetoric about a ticking “population bomb” was equally misguided anticipated the birth of a more diverse and robust movement that sought to think more systemically about environmental problems. The growth of the environmental justice movement in the ’70s and ’80s—a Blacker, poorer relative of the better-known movement that spawned Earth Day in 1970—ameliorated Bond’s fears by tapping into long-held concerns by Black Americans and others about the relationships between racism, land ownership, and environmental waste. This more sophisticated environmentalism also drew Bond into its movement, and he got arrested in 2013 at the White House while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline alongside members of the Sierra Club and in defiance of the nation’s first Black president.
Bond was likewise concerned about a growing disconnect between activists and ordinary people in the 1970s. As Black power gave way to a Black liberalism safely ensconced in the Democratic Party, he continued to wonder if activists had lost their way. “It suggests that the supposed and alleged security of the college campus is not the proper place from which to engage in social criticism of people who seldom see any book but the Bible from year to year,” he warned, critiquing what he saw as an activism that had become too comfortable in the ivory tower, far removed from the everyday needs of working people.
By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bond had become, for many Americans, an avatar of the civil rights movement and its legacy. He lent his voice to the groundbreaking miniseries Eyes on the Prize, serving as a one-man Greek chorus for the now-iconic struggle. He hosted an early episode of Saturday Night Live, cementing his status as a national public figure. But there was an increasing sense that Bond had failed to live up to his early promise on the political stage and that as his celebrity grew, so did his distance from his constituents in Georgia. In a bruising 1986 race for the US House of Representatives that pitted him against his friend and colleague from the civil rights movement John Lewis, Bond was criticized for having lost his way. Rumors that he used drugs were whispered about in Atlanta and were blown wide open when Lewis challenged him to a drug test. “I love Julian like a brother,” Lewis said in a 1990 profile of the two men in Atlanta magazine. “But he fumbled the ball. He had unbelievable opportunities. He just didn’t take advantage.”
Part of what hurt Bond’s campaign, as The New York Times pointed out after his defeat, was the concern that his “thousands of speaking engagements and television appearances elsewhere” hampered his ability to be an effective voice in the Georgia Senate. That lost him the trust and goodwill he needed to win what turned out to be his toughest—and final—political campaign. After the election, Bond accepted teaching positions at several distinguished institutions, including Harvard and American University, and he reflected on the charge that he had failed to live up to his potential as the man who could have been the nation’s first Black vice president, perhaps even its first Black president. “I can’t do what other people want me to do,” he said. “I’m absolutely content and fulfilled right now [teaching and lecturing]. It’s enough for me. I’m confused as to why it’s not enough for anyone else.”
Bond remained active in left political circles for the rest of his life, and he continued to consider how one could be radical and yet work within the system, sounding the alarm during George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies on a range of issues, especially the erosion of voting rights and the need to fight for LGBTQ rights.
It is difficult to imagine a thorough history of the American left after 1960 that doesn’t include Bond and the many roles he played: as a communications director for SNCC, as a state legislator for 20 years, as the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (a position he assumed in 1971), as the voice that millions of people associated with the civil rights movement thanks to Eyes on the Prize, and as an elder statesman of the movement before his death in 2015. His balancing act between radicalism and reform, between movements and party politics, still speaks to the divides and the cohesiveness of the left. Fighting for freedom in the streets, in the classrooms, and in the halls of power was all part of Bond’s tool kit. Reading his essays, we are reminded that the challenges of forging a principled yet practical path forward are nothing new—and that Bond is someone who might serve as a guide in our own uncertain times. We cannot be afraid of difficult debates or of changing tactics when necessary. Julian Bond proved that, time and time again.
[Robert Greene IIis an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and has written for Jacobin, In These Times, and Dissent.]
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