John Lewis, Julian Bond and the answering machine that is still changing the world

Andrew Young, left, former congressman and U.N. ambassador, Rep. John Lewis, center, D-Ga., and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond take part in the "Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement" panel during the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Credit: Jack Plunkett

Credit: Jack Plunkett

Andrew Young, left, former congressman and U.N. ambassador, Rep. John Lewis, center, D-Ga., and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond take part in the "Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement" panel during the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Note to readers: Much of what follows was drawn from a column first published in 2015:

The case can be made that John Lewis’ 33-year career in Congress has its roots in an ill-conceived attempt at humor and the gadget we called an answering machine.

Not only did the device help send the son of a sharecropper to Washington D.C., but it ensured that Atlanta would not be the sovereign domain of its famous and rising Black intellectual elite. A biracial, multi-class alliance could challenge the city’s new status quo -- and win.

Answering machines were still something new on the scene in pre-cell phone 1984. This one belonged to Julian Bond, then perhaps the best-known state senator in the nation.

He was erudite. He was handsome. He had been nominated for vice president. He lectured. He traveled. He had hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” hanging with the likes of John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd.

But this is the message that Bond left for constituents who called his Atlanta home: "I'm sorry if there is no one here to answer your phone call, but that is the way it is. ... Please don't leave a message on this phone. It does not like them and will not take them."

A 28-year-old upstart by the name of Hildred Shumake challenged Bond in that year's Democratic primary. He went door to door with a tape recorder, playing the high-handed phone message. Bond would beat back Shumake with 54 percent of the vote. It was not an impressive showing for an 18-year state lawmaker who was a household name.

As famous as he was, Julian Bond was vulnerable.

Two years later, in 1986, one of Georgia's classic backroom deals was cut. If Democrats didn't go after U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, who had ousted Democrat Herman Talmadge six years earlier and was seeking re-election, Republicans would agree to lay off Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a Democrat who would also be on the November ballot.

U.S. Rep. Wyche Fowler, D-Atlanta, either didn't know of the deal, or chose not to observe the terms. He announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, opening up his Fifth District congressional seat.

Then as now in Georgia, opportunities for promotion within the African-American political community were rare. And two civil rights stalwarts, both young men during the heady days of the early '60s, had been stewing in the backwaters too long to do their careers any good.

Julian Bond and John Lewis traced their friendship back to one of the first organizational meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And when marriage and children came, Lewis and Bond would go to Braves games en masse. They vacationed together in places like Jamaica and Disney World. Lewis was even godfather to Bond’s son, Michael Julian Bond.

Now they both sought the same ticket to Congress.

Bond was the clear favorite. He had spent the last two years in the Legislature in anticipation of this moment, boosting the black voting population of the Fifth District – which may have contributed to Fowler’s up-or-out decision to run for the U.S. Senate. Socially, the Nashville native and Morehouse man had become a member of Atlanta’s upper crust who could take any opponent apart with his tongue, whether in a debate or a TV studio.

Yet despite Bond's celebrity, there was quiet talk that he hadn't quite fulfilled the promise he'd shown when he arrived on the local political scene in 1966. Then, his state House colleagues refused to seat him --- ostensibly because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. But things had calmed since then. In interviews, Bond already described himself as a man adrift. More likely, he was simply bored.

By contrast, John Lewis was a slow-talking son of rural Alabama, who often struggled with pronunciation. He was now an at-large member of the Atlanta City Council --- a fact that would become important. Alliances of convenience held no attraction for him. He had already tangled with Mayor Andrew Young by opposing a new freeway that would link downtown Atlanta with former President Jimmy Carter’s new library on the city’s east side. (The idea was scaled down to the boulevard that we now call the John Lewis Freedom Parkway.)

Bond would have Maynard Jackson and much of the former mayor’s pioneering network behind him. David Franklin, then husband to a future mayor, was the brightest political strategist in the city. He, too, was on Bond’s side.

“In those days, believe it or not, women were not in the strategy room,” Shirley Franklin said this week. “What I knew about it was from side conversations. It was a bitter race, but it was a race grounded in what they both believed in.”

Lewis would stitch together an alliance of white voters in Buckhead and disenchanted African-Americans on the south side. "Able" Mable Thomas, a rabble-rouser from downtrodden Vine City, was one of the few Black leaders to openly back Lewis.

Lewis’ campaign slogan was “vote for the tugboat, not the showboat.”

Observers quickly learned that, for the man already saddled with the title of “living saint” non-violence didn’t mean passivity. Lewis revealed an aggressive streak at his campaign kick-off, by focusing on Bond’s self-deprecating description of himself as “lazy.”

"I have never been quoted calling myself lazy," Lewis said.

It was a revealing moment. Rick Allen, then the political columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, caught the desperate nature of the coming campaign with these stellar lines:

“In that one instant, the real stakes of the contest came into full view. The Fifth District race is a last hurrah for two men who were, just a decade ago, giants on the American landscape, and who are now, day by day, diminishing in stature before our very eyes.

“The winner, taking his place as the only black congressman from the Deep South, will regain national prominence overnight. The loser will fall deeper into the shadows, perhaps never to escape.”

In his 1998 memoir, "Walking with the Wind," Lewis addressed the class distinctions that would drive the race:

"Julian enjoyed being a star. He approached his work as if it were an inconvenience. Everything had always come easy for Julian; sweating was not something he liked to do.

“And yet now he wanted to be a congressman. And everyone assumed he would be a shoo-in. And that bothered me a great deal.”

Bond nearly pulled it off, winning 47 percent in an August primary, to Lewis' 35 percent. The pair engaged in four bitter debates leading up to the September runoff. Lewis quickly made what were then heretical suggestions that Bond was part of the city's drug scene. In his memoirs, Lewis would say that he was counterpunching:

“‘Mr. Bond,' I said. ‘My friend. My brother. We were asked to take a drug test not long ago, and five of us went and took that test. Why don’t we step out and go to the men’s room and take another test?’”

At the end of another debate, Bond pronounced the pair's relationship fractured. "We went to Africa together, we were in Selma together," Bond said. "Why did I have to wait 25 years to find out what you really thought of me, to find out that you really don't think I amount to much?"

Lewis won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote. The defeat of a national celebrity stunned the nation. But even as it announced his defeat, the New York Times forecast a Bond resurgence.

It was not to be. The next year, Alice Bond, the wife of Julian Bond, went to the Atlanta Police Department's narcotic squad, to complain that a woman with whom her husband was dallying had slashed Mrs. Bond's face with the stiletto heel of her shoe. The other woman also had cocaine connections, Bond's wife told the cops.

The scandal eventually petered out, but Bond's electoral career was finished. He would spend the next 25 years remaking himself, mostly away from Atlanta, eventually closing out a rich public career as head of the NAACP.

Bond died in 2015 at age 75. Lewis, 80, died Friday. The two were born only 38 days apart, you see.

Something like a rapprochement occurred years later at an event that saw them both shake hands. “It wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy. It was a thaw,” Pam Horowitz, Bond’s second wife, told my Journal-Constitution colleague Tamar Hallerman.

Hallerman also spoke to Michael Julian Bond, now a member of the Atlanta City Council, about the contest between his father and godfather. “I hate that that race kind of robbed America of its civil rights dynamic duo,” the son said.

Or, if you don’t want to blame that 1986 race for Congress, blame the answering machine.