One of my keenest memories of Julian Bond is his voice. It had a beautiful tone, smooth and musical and soft. In the 1970s, when Julian was in the Georgia legislature, my mother was a top aide. I would drop by his Atlanta office now and then when home on break from college. The office was a boisterous, happy place, where phones rang constantly and constituents lined up for assistance. But when he sat down at a desk — any desk, there was no set location — to record his “Julian Bond at Large” radio spot, a sudden hush fell uncommanded across the room. Even the constituents stopped to listen. He always finished the recording in one take. Everyone would applaud.
Bond, who died last weekend at 75, was a towering figure in the civil rights movement, a man of both conscience and controversy. He cut his political eyeteeth in the 1960s as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was a spellbinder and a firebrand, never reluctant to say exactly what he thought and to let the chips fall where they may.
My mother used to call him the brightest man in politics. Small wonder. Bond was raised in a fiercely intellectual black family of a sort that few Americans quite believe has ever existed. His paternal grandparents were both graduates of Oberlin at a time when hardly any black students attended college. His father, Horace Mann Bond, who earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago, was president of Lincoln University and a top official of the Rosenwald Fund. His uncle was president of the University of Liberia. In short, Julian came quite naturally by his soft but sure willingness to speak his mind.
In 1970, for instance, he told a group of college students that he favored the overthrow of the U.S. government. Asked whether he meant violently or nonviolently, he answered, “It doesn’t matter.” That particular remark caused the Georgia legislature to try to kick him out.
They had tried before.
In 1965, when Bond was first elected, the Georgia legislature refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. His fellow legislators decided he was disloyal. The excluded him, therefore, on the ground that he could not conscientiously take the legislative oath to support and defend the Constitution.
The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where Georgia argued that it had the power to judge conscientiousness in order to “ensure the loyalty of its public servants by making the taking of an oath a qualification of office.” The justices unanimously rejected the argument. Keeping Bond out because of a disagreement with his views was no different than keeping him out because of a dislike of his color, wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Bond’s anti-war stance didn’t make him popular among African-Americans, either. Black Atlanta at the time was as pro-war as white Atlanta. The black press excoriated him. Even Grace Towns Hamilton, a friend of his family and the most influential black politician in Georgia at the time, refused to support him.
And in the 1990s, looking back on a career spent fighting racism, Bond was able to articulate the downside of integration: “People who are poor who are living on the edge of poverty or who are living under poverty are tucked away someplace else. I don’t see them; they don’t see me; we don’t interact; we have no relation one to the other; no physical relation.”
He often criticized the black leadership for “shooting ourselves” rather than “direct[ing] our energies outward.”
The last time Julian and I crossed paths was a year and a half ago, when we were both on a panel at the Washington National Cathedral to discuss Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” I hadn’t seen him in years, but he had hardly changed at all. During the question-and-answer session, Bond vehemently attacked the black church for its opposition to same-sex marriage. His voice was as melodious as ever. Perhaps his language was needlessly harsh. Certainly he made some enemies that night in the audience. But that was very much who Julian Bond was: a man always moved by conscience, less worried about giving offense than saying what he considered the truth.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.