Born on January 14th, 1940, in Nashville, Tennessee, Julian Bond was among the most prominent, charismatic and influential leaders of the African American civil rights movement that began to stir during the early 1950s and peaked in the mid-1960s. Bond first entered the public eye in March 1960 when he was an undergraduate student at Morehouse College. Prodded by his classmate Lonnie King, Bond emerged as one of the leaders of the Atlanta student movement that began challenging racial segregation in public accommodations through sit ins, protests and boycotts. Like many other African American student protests throughout the South, the Atlanta movement was inspired by the now- famous Greensboro, North Carolina, sit ins at Woolworth’s department store that had begun the month before.
Bond was among the students who attended the April 1960 Easter Weekend conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, a meeting called by the leading civil rights organizations of the day to decide how to harness this outpouring of student activism. And it was there that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. A published poet and accomplished writer while still in college, Bond was drawn into the civil rights movement by the courage of college students throughout the South who believed it was time to take the battle against white supremacy out of the courts and into the streets.
From the beginning, Bond stood apart from other student activists on historically black college campuses in the South. Unlike most African American students at that time, Bond was not the first in his family to attend college. Far from it. His father, Horace Mann Bond, was a nationally renowned educator, scholar and public intellectual. Dr. Bond taught at several universities before settling into a career in academic administration, serving as the president of Fort Valley College in South Georgia and Lincoln University just outside Philadelphia before finishing his career as the dean of the School of Education at Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta) University, retiring in 1971. Julian’s mother, Julia Agnes Washington Bond, grew up in one of Nashville’s most prominent African American families and was a librarian. Activists and scholars such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Albert Einstein were among the visitors to campus during Julian Bond's formative years.
Consistent with his talents and educated bearing, Bond became the first communications director of SNCC, which was headquartered in Atlanta. Along with other students from the historically black Atlanta universities, Bond also helped establish and write for the Atlanta Inquirer, which was the student alternative to the city’s established black newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World. The World was wary of the student movement that had become a fixture of daily life in the city. At the same time, Bond began to establish relationships with members of the local and national white news media to help publicize the work of SNCC, which soon expanded beyond sit ins and protests to far more dangerous voter registration campaigns throughout the Deep South.
The Bond-led SNCC communications office made sure that the violence and atrocities against field secretaries and local residents for their work made the news as well, particularly local and national television networks that were now covering the civil rights movement with more regularity. The work of the SNCC communications office also went beyond the news media. Regular contact with the Department of Justice and the FBI to apprise them on the failure of local law enforcement to protect civil rights workers and African American residents in the communities in which they lived and worked was also a regular part of the SNCC communications office.
By 1965, the combination of Mr. Bond’s reputation as a communications specialist, his ease in front of the camera, his calm, distinctive voice, his quick wit and his principled commitment to the civil rights movement led Ivanhoe Donaldson, a SNCC field secretary with an eye on electoral politics, to draft Bond to run for a seat in the Georgia legislature. A federal court had ordered Georgia to re-draw its state legislative map, creating three new multi-member black districts in Atlanta. Donaldson had wanted SNCC to develop a presence in cities to complement its long-standing work in rural black communities. Bond was elected by a wide margin, surprising the local black and white Atlanta establishment. But shortly before taking office, Bond gave an interview in which he was asked if he supported SNCC’s stated opposition to the Vietnam War. Pressured by the white political establishment to distance himself from the SNCC statement, Bond instead stated his agreement with it. The legislature, in turn, voted to bar him from taking his seat.
Bond’s battle with the Georgia legislature resulted in a trip to the United States Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled, in Bond v. Floyd (1966), that the legislature had violated Bond’s free speech rights under the First Amendment. A three-judge federal court then ordered Bond seated in the legislature, where, beginning in January 1967, he would serve for almost twenty more years. The drama around Bond’s election also took him from a well-known leader within the civil rights movement to an emerging public figure on a national stage. In 1968, Bond helped a lead a challenge to the whites-only Georgia delegation to the Democratic national convention in Chicago only heightened this evolution. Bond’s name was placed in nomination for the vice-presidency, only half seriously, since, at twenty-eight years old, he was too young to hold the office. But this gesture served to underscore Bond’s transition from a twenty-year old leader in the Atlanta student movement to a national figure who commanded attention whenever he spoke.
Julian Bond remained a fixture in public life well-beyond the 1960s. In 1971, he helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center, serving as its president until 1979. Bond taught courses on the civil rights movement at numerous universities for the remainder of his life, including the University of Pennsylvania, Williams, Harvard, the University of Virginia and American University. Bond wrote on politics and public affairs for numerous publications, and also hosted the PBS public affairs program, America’s Black Forum, from 1980-1997. He served as the narrator for the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, his voice instantly recognizable from his days on the front line of the civil rights movement. From 1998-2010, Bond served as Chairman of the Board of the NAACP, leading the nation’s oldest civil rights organization into new places by supporting marriage equality and environmental justice. Until his final hours, Julian Bond remained a stalwart proponent for liberty, equality and dignity for all persons.