Julian Bond came of age during that critical time in this nation’s history when winning equal rights for all took a great deal: a clear head, a big heart, a razor-sharp intellect, and a way with words.
Julian Bond had it all. And he could wrap all of it up to create whatever was needed at the time – either a tool or a weapon, a poem or a sermon. He was driven by a commitment to make America better.
While a Morehouse-based member of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helping to organize the Freedom Summer of 1964 and its massive voter registration drive in Mississippi, Julian Bond took to task the American public and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“We have learned through bitter experience in the past three years that the judicial, legislative and executive bodies of Mississippi form a wall of absolute resistance to granting civil rights to Negroes. It is our conviction that only a massive effort by the country backed by the full power of the President can offer some hope for even minimal change in Mississippi.”
Those words came from a letter Julian Bond wrote on April 28, 1964 to one of America’s most inspiring writers, James Baldwin. He was writing to encourage Baldwin to join a “jury” to hear “testimony” about Civil Rights violations from African Americans facing discrimination in employment, housing, and voting rights in Mississippi. Under a plan designed by SNCC and other members of the Council of Federated Organizations, the testimony would be presented to the President so he would be moved to create a government-sanctioned way to protect the Freedom Summer workers.
“The President must be made to understand that this responsibility rests with him, and him alone, and that neither he nor the American people can afford to jeopardize the lives of the people who will be working in Mississippi this summer by failing to take the necessary precautions before the summer begins.”
Bond’s letter to Baldwin has entered the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It will be used alongside similar documents to show how people like Julian Bond helped design and fuel the Civil Rights Movement.
Bond was so committed to helping us tell that story well, that he became a member of the museum’s Civil Rights History Project advisory committee. In that role he helped us land interviews with some of the most important workers in the movement; he also conducted two of the more than 150 interviews for this oral history project. One was with Lawrence Guyot, the director of the 1964 Freedom Summer project in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Julian Bond wrote his letter to James Baldwin in 1964 at the age of 23. Less than three years later he would be awarded his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives by a unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Four years after that, in 1971, he would become the founding president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nearly 30 years later, in 1998, he would take the helm of the NAACP serving as its national chairman for an astonishing 12 years.
Julian Bond has spent his life as a champion in the campaign for equality. Much of what we as a nation know about compassion and commitment, we have learned from Julian Bond, the people he emulated and the people he inspired. We are sad because he has left us. And we are deeply honored that we had him for as long as we did … to help us help America live up to her promises. We are better people because he walked among us for a while.
Thank you, Horace Julian Bond.