Julian Bond: thinker, lawmaker, leader

It was hot, Mississippi Delta hot. Folks opened the windows, but that did little to dispel the heat in the stifling confines of that Baptist church. The pews filled.

Julian Bond and John Lewis took off their jackets that June 1971 evening. It would be steamy work, helping register African-American voters in an un-air-conditioned church in Belzoni.

People turned, surprised. Belzoni’s mayor walked in. He strode up the aisle and stopped in front of the two black men from Atlanta. He stuck out a white, middle-aged hand.

“Welcome to Belzoni!” he said. “Glad to have you guys here.”

His honor stuck around for a while before leaving. After he’d gone, Bond turned to the crowd. “He (the mayor) really didn’t come to see us,” Bond said. “He wanted you to see him with us.”

The lesson, Bond said: If you want to get the power structure’s attention, register to vote.

That moment still resonates with Lewis, now a congressman from Atlanta. Because of Bond, people in Belzoni learned they could make a difference.

Bond, 75, died Aug. 15. His death caught some by surprise — one friend said Bond defied age — and left people pondering his legacy. So did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which this week asked a dozen people about how history will treat Bond.

He was a great communicator who helped shape the public’s perceptions of civil-rights struggles, one long-time friend said. He was one of the reasons Georgia changed its state flag, another recalled. He was, several people said, the right person to steer the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at a time when the organization needed a steady hand.

And yet, some indicated, Bond possibly could have done more. His failed run for Congress, stymied in part by allegations of infidelity and drug use, underscored a life that held much promise — some of it, perhaps, never realized.

Bond was many things, including a keen judge of fat car tires.

‘He was astute’

The ’48 Chevy rattled and shook as it bumped along that Alabama dirt road. Bernard Lafayette Jr. grasped its steering wheel, peering into its rear-view mirror. He saw the headlights of a pursuing car — occupied, he was convinced, by someone intent on his death.

Lafayette floored it. The car’s fat tires threw a rooster tail of dirt. The pursuing car, enveloped in dust, gave up the chase.

That was 52 years ago, when he and Bond were active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lafayette is certain that old car saved his life — and so, by extension, did Bond.

In the early 1960s, SNCC readied to help register black voters across the South. The organization had a fleet of cars to get its soldiers to the battles that awaited.

Among the recruits: Lafayette. The guy giving out the cars: Bond.

Lafayette watched as Bond divvied up the cars: a late-model sedan to one guy; a sporty coupe to another. When Bond came to the old black Chevy with the bulbous fenders, he turned to Lafayette. That car, said Bond, was his.

That pile of junk? Lafayette seethed. Bond explained.

Lafayette, he said, would be driving rural roads, in potentially hazardous areas. The old Chevy was built of thick steel, suitable for stopping bullets. It had high doors, meaning its driver presented less of a target to a would-be assassin. And it had those fat tires, perfect for throwing up dust.

As Lafayette discovered one frightening night.

“Julian was right,” said Lafayette, now 75 and the national chairman of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “He was astute, in knowing such things.”

Bond’s writings and speeches will last, said Lonnie King, one of SNCC’s founders. He met the future state legislator nearly six decades ago, as each stood in line to register for classes at Morehouse College.

When SNCC formed, King said, Bond was a natural to be its first PR guy. He was tireless with a typewriter and mimeograph machine.

“He was a gifted writer,” said King, now 78. “His gift was writing, oratory, and things well-reasoned out. “

Bond will be remembered as a keen legislator, said Tyrone Brooks, a former lawmaker. For several years Brooks was in the House while Bond sat in the Senate. They conferred nearly every morning before another legislative day got started, Brooks, 69, said.

Bond, he said, urged him to sponsor legislation changing the Georgia state flag, which featured the 13-star Confederate battle banner. In the early 1980s, with Bond’s support, Brooks said he began visiting civil rights groups across the state, urging a face-lift for the state flag. Bond, he said, often called ahead, telling people Brooks was coming.

“He said, ‘Tyrone, it’ll happen,’” Brooks said. “’We may not be alive, but it’ll happen.’”

In 2001, then-Gov. Roy Barnes changed the flag.

“A lasting matter”

Bond found a purpose after leaving public life when he became chair of the NAACP, said noted civil rights activist C.T. Vivian. Bond led the organization from 1998 to 2010.

“He was a thinker, a strategist,” said Vivian, 81. “That’s what he did at the NAACP. That’s a lasting matter.”

Former Atlanta Constitution Editor Reg Murphy concurred. “He brought, to the surprise of a lot of people, a calm and conciliatory manner to that program,” said Murphy, 81, now retired and living in St. Simons Island.

Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor, Georgia congressman and U.N. ambassador, believes Bond’s legacy was assured when he accepted the 1968 Democratic nomination for vice president. Not only was Bond the first black nominee, he may have been the youngest: At 28, he was seven years short of the minimum age to hold the nation’s second highest elected office. He couldn’t run.

Bond, said Young, also was a “voice of reason,” keeping his cool when faced with discrimination, in the heat of civil rights issues, on the floor of the state Senate. “I never saw him angry,” Young said.

Bond was among the first high-profile leaders to voice opposition to the Vietnam War, said David Garrow, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh whose specialty is civil rights.

“He was in the forefront of that,” Garrow said.

That stance had professional ramifications for Bond, said Bill Shipp, a former Atlanta Constitution political editor. Bond’s stand against the war prompted fellow Georgia lawmakers in January 1966 to vote overwhelmingly to deny him a seat in the Legislature. It was a collective go-to-hell gesture to their young colleague.

Bond took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. History will always remember that, Shipp said.

“That broke down the last vestige of a fence,” said Shipp, 82. “What it was, was an attempt to recuse a black man from a seat he was elected to.”

A seat he sought and never got: representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. That’s another one for the history books.

Lewis, the man who traveled with Bond to that sweltering Mississippi church, won. He did so in a 1986 contest that pitted upper-crust against dirt-crusted — Bond, the child of a university president, against Lewis, whose father share-cropped. It was a hard fight, with accusations of Bond’s infidelity and drug use reported doggedly by The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. When Lewis challenged Bond to take a drug test — Bond never did — that may have been the moment one star fell while another rose.

Twenty-nine years later, Lewis still thinks about about that — thinks, too, about sweltering churches in Mississippi, about two friends rolling down country roads. “He was wonderful to travel with,” Lewis said.

“If he had won, he probably would have done much more,” Lewis said, with a surprising note of regret in his voice. “He would have emerged as a national leader.”

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