Civil rights advocate Julian Bond lived an accomplished life committed to the expansion of justice and equality for all. His death on Saturday is a loss for the nation, but particularly for Georgia.
A native of Nashville and the son of a college president, Bond attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. It was at Morehouse that Bond helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, launching himself into the Civil Rights Movement. Bond worked to end segregated facilities in Atlanta. His first arrested came after an attempt to integrate a cafeteria at Atlanta City Hall. Later in life, Bond served as chairman of the NAACP.
After the Voting Rights Act’s enactment in 1965, Bond was one of eight black candidates elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. White members of the Georgia House, however, were unwilling to welcome Bond into the chamber. The Georgia House overwhelmingly refused to seat him, citing his opposition to the Vietnam War and accusing him of disloyalty. They declared the seat vacant and ordered a special election, which Bond won. The stalemate ended with an unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court ordering the legislature to seat him in 1966 in Bond v. Floyd.
He spent 20 years in the Georgia General Assembly. Among his many legislative achievements was the creation of a majority-black congressional district in Atlanta. In 1968, he was the co-chairman of a racially integrated delegation to the Democratic National Convention. It was at that Convention, he became the first African-American nominated for vice president of the United States. The nomination was a gesture, however, because Bond was only 27-years-old. Despite the symbolic nature of his floor nomination, Bond saw it as an opportunity to bring light to issues of racism and poverty in the United States. He was successful. It was that moment which would eventually lead to him to become the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
He was also a candidate for Congress in 1986. Despite winning a plurality in the first primary election, he went on to lose to fellow civil rights hero John Lewis in a hotly contested runoff.
Later in life, he taught civil rights history at the University of Virginia. That is where I met him– as Professor Bond. For two summers while law student, I volunteered to help him research the NAACP’s litigation work prior to the Second World War.
Julian Bond’s impact on civil rights and voting rights is hard to overstate. The ways in which he shaped Georgia are immeasurable. Indeed, I could write a novel about Julian Bond’s many accomplishments, but offer a small story to illustrate the civil rights giant’s kindness and wisdom.
Julian Bond was an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. He was at the forefront of building a coalition of civil rights organizations to back same-sex marriage. A few years ago, I wrote to Bond detailing the status of LGBT issues in Georgia. I asked him how he managed to stay committed to the cause in the face of tremendous challenges in Atlanta. I wanted insight as to how he kept hope alive in communities that were more accustom to defeat than victory. His response was simple, “You must persevere.” He explained that standing up for social justice is a triumph in its own right– no matter whether you ultimately win or lose.
There are many challenges that we face in America today that Julian Bond was deeply passionate about, including protecting voting rights, advancing LGBT rights, and reforming the criminal justice system. Julian Bond’s legacy will live on in these civil rights causes and many more.
In his life, there is a particular lesson for young Georgians– that those who have a passion to do justice and serve as agents of change can remake this state. Youth is no excuse to not volunteer on campaigns, to not speak out against social ills, or to not run for office.
As we carry the torch that Julian Bond and other civil rights giants have passed on to us, we all– Georgians young and old– have a lesson to learn from him. We must embrace his wisdom and remember that, win or lose, there is always victory in the act of speaking out.