Julian Bond reflects on his work for civil rights

Fifty years ago, civil rights activist and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) communications director Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, one of 11 who were the first black members elected to the General Assembly in 58 years, the result of reapportionment and a special election after the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But after Bond voiced support for an anti-Vietnam War SNCC statement that sympathized with draft evasion, members of the Legislature accused Bond of treason and disorderly conduct, voting 184-12 to bar him from his seat. Four days later, that spurred a 1,000-person protest at the State Capitol led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I am going to be seated,” the 25-year-old Bond told reporters.

That resolve took Bond all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he fought for his right to speak his mind, and the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for him.

Bond spent 20 years in the Georgia legislature. Since then, he has been the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the chairman of the NAACP and a constant advocate for social justice. Today, he’s the Distinguished Professor in Residence at American University. We caught up with Bond, now 74, on the phone.

You were immersed in the Civil Rights movement, organizing protests and directing communications for SNCC. What made you want to run for office?

My friend (former Georgia State Representative) Ben Brown was running in a district and said, “Bond, why don’t you try this?” And I said, “Well, I guess I will!” And I won … It was exciting to be a pathbreaker.

Did you think that your support for the SNCC statement would lead to a severe reaction from the Georgia legislature?

I had no idea that they would react in such an awful way, that they would think that I didn’t have a right to talk in this way. It was really a free speech issue. … I had a right to have an opinion about these subjects. I had a right to think that, and I had to stand up for that right.

Did you think that reaction was really about the Vietnam War, or was it about race?

It was about race and Vietnam. It was about both these things, and you can’t separate them. It was about the nerve of this black guy to have an opinion about this.

The notion that black people were coming to the Georgia House of Representatives — they couldn’t put it together in their minds. Race was a major factor in their thinking. This “uppity black kid” said things that he shouldn’t have said, and they wanted to push him down.

Do you think the Georgia legislature changed at all during your time there?

There’s always one or two people there that didn’t think black people should be there at all … but over time, politicians, you know, are great at putting aside questions of race. After a while, I was a vote for them or against them, and they wanted me to be a vote for them. We, collectively, changed the legislature.

What do you think the state of race is now in the U.S.? How far have we come?

It’s certainly better than it was when I was in college. But we’re not there yet. We’ve still got a lot more to do.

First, there have to be more black registered voters. Black people are not as engaged in politics or voting for office. Millions of people who read this article will not be even be registered voters.

Georgia in particular has been raising several obstacles for not letting black people vote … The photo ID laws. There’s no example of people pretending to be someone else when they vote. It almost never happens. It’s a myth, created to justify not letting certain people vote.

What do you think of the recent protests spurred by the deaths and non-indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island?

Why do policemen think they’re immune from criticism? Why do they think they’re the only ones who don’t have to be accountable for their actions? … More people need to be pressing it. We need to be pressing for police reforms. Body cameras are a helpful thing to do. It’s not enough to just protest … You need to be registered to vote if nothing else.

Why have you continued advocating for other rights for other groups, such as women, the LGBT community?

It just makes sense to me that rights are rights. These are just plain rights. There are no black rights or gay rights or women’s rights; they’re just rights, and everyone has them.

Do you think Georgia will end its gay marriage ban soon?

Sure. Georgia’s gonna agree to same-sex marriage. They’re just fighting a losing battle. This is an ongoing tide that’s sweeping across the country.