Julian Bond, renowned civil rights activist and recipient of the AAG’s prestigious Atlas Award, passed away on August 15, 2015, aged 75.
Horace Julian Bond was born on January 14, 1940, in Nashville. Both parents were academics: his father an administrator at historically black colleges and his mother a librarian. The family moved to Pennsylvania when he was five after his father was appointed the first African-American president of Lincoln University. Bond was expected to follow in his footsteps as an educator but the young man was more attracted by journalism and political activism.
Aged 12, Bond was sent to George School near Philadelphia, a private Quaker-run establishment. There he first encountered racial resentment when he began dating a white girl, incurring the disapproval of white students and the school authorities.
Another five years later, his father was appointed as Dean of Education at Atlanta University and the family moved south again. Bond was enrolled at the prestigious Morehouse College where he attended a class taught by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. However, extracurricular activities drew his attention more than academic studies.
In 1960 he co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student activist group that gave young black Americans a revolutionary loudspeaker during the civil rights movement and executed some of the movement’s most dangerous work in the Deep South. Dozens of his friends went to jail during his time with SNCC but he was arrested only once when he led a sit-in at the City Hall cafeteria in Atlanta, part of a wave of protests across the South against segregated public facilities.
In 1961, Bond dropped out of college to focus exclusively on civil rights efforts. He served as the SNCC’s communications director for five years and deftly guided the national news media toward stories of violence and discrimination. He organized campaigns to register black voters, and led student protests against segregation and Jim Crow throughout Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
On the strength of his personality and quick intellect, he moved to the center of the civil rights action in Atlanta, the unofficial capital of the movement, at the height of the struggle for racial equality in the early 1960s.
During this period, Bond and some fellow black students visited the Georgia House of Representatives. Having deliberately sat in the whites-only visitors’ section, they were escorted out by Capitol police, but he was destined to return to the House.
Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Bond was part of the inaugural group of seven African-Americans elected to Georgia’s House of Representatives. However, furious white members of the Legislature blocked him from taking his seat, accusing him of disloyalty, primarily because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1966 for him to finally take his seat.
Bond went on to serve in the state Legislature for four terms, mostly in conspicuous isolation from white colleagues who saw him as an interloper and a rabble-rouser. As a lawmaker, he sponsored bills to establish a sickle cell anemia testing program and to provide low-interest home loans to low-income Georgians. He also helped create a majority-black congressional district in Atlanta.
In 1968 he attended the Democratic National Convention, where he was a co-chairman of a racially integrated challenge delegation from Georgia. His public profile shot up when he gave a rousing speech in favor of peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy and his name was even placed into nomination for vice president. He declined to pursue a serious candidacy because he was too young to meet the constitutional age requirement, but from that moment on he was a national figure.
In 1971, Bond was a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a legal advocacy organization in Montgomery, AL, serving as its first president until 1979 and remaining on the board for the rest of his life.
Bond was also elected six times to the state Senate. In 1986 he ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives, standing against his old friend John Lewis, a fellow founder of the student committee and its longtime chairman. When he lost, he resigned from the Senate, spending the next two decades focused on education and media work. He was a favorite on the college lecture circuit, teaching at universities throughout the north and south.
His wit, cool personality, youthful face, dashing looks and natty dress sense lent themselves to media exposure. He became a regular commentator in print and on television, including as host of “America’s Black Forum,” then the oldest black-owned television program in syndication, and his face became familiar to millions of television viewers. His most unusual television appearance was in April 1977, when he hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” He also appeared in a handful of movies, including as himself in the Ray Charles biopic "Ray" (2004).
In addition, Bond was also a writer. From a book of essays published in 1972 entitled “A Time to Speak, a Time to Act”, to poetry on the pained point of view of a repressed minority. He also wrote articles for publications as varied as The Nation, Negro Digest and Playboy.
In 1998, he was chosen as the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at a time when the organization was mired in debt and seemed woefully dated. He continued in the role until his resignation in 2010.
Despite dropping out of college in the early 1960s, Bond returned a decade later to complete his English degree. He became a celebrated educator, holding appointments at several leading institutions including Harvard University, Williams College, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. In later years, he was based in Washington, DC, serving as a distinguished scholar in residence at American University in Washington, and a professor of history at the University of Virginia, where he was co-director of the oral history project “Explorations in Black Leadership.” He was awarded more than 20 honorary degrees throughout his career.
In 2014, Bond was awarded the Association of American Geographers’ prestigious Atlas Award, designed to recognize and celebrate outstanding accomplishments that advance world understanding in exceptional ways, whether in science, politics, scholarship, the arts, or in war and peace. At the Annual Meeting in Tampa, he delivered a presentation on “Race Around the World,” focusing on how civil rights figures and organizations shaped and changed American foreign policy, before being presented with his award by AAG President, Julie Winkler. Watch video
Julian Bond played a central role in America’s civil rights movement, spanning student protest and activist politics to institutional leadership and academia. Although his fight for social justice was focused on race, he also campaigned for peace, gay rights and the environment, among other issues. He was a charismatic figure with a reputation for charm alongside his persistent opponent of the stubborn remnants of white supremacy. In the few days before his death, after he was suddenly taken ill, his wife reported that he remained ever the optimist, finding reasons to laugh.
Following the announcement of his death, President Obama said: “Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life – from his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to his founding role with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to his pioneering service in the Georgia legislature and his steady hand at the helm of the NAACP… Julian Bond helped change this country for the better. And what better way to be remembered than that.”
Bond leaves behind his second wife, Pamela Horowitz, a former lawyer whom he met at the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as five children and eight grandchildren. He is also survived by a brother and sister.