Remembering Civil Rights Freedom Fighter Julian Bond Who Chaired NAACP, Cofounded SNCC

We remember the life of civil rights pioneer Julian Bond, who died on Saturday at the age of 75. Bond first gained prominence in 1960 when he organized a series of student sit-ins while attending Morehouse College. He went on to help found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bond was elected as a Democrat to the Georgia House of Representatives. But members of the Legislature refused to seat him, citing his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. Bond took the case to the Supreme Court and won. He went on to serve 20 years in the Georgia House and Senate. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Julian Bond became the first African-American person nominated for US vice president by a major political party. But he had to withdraw his name because he was just 28 years old – seven years too young to hold the second-highest elected office. Julian would go on to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center. He served as the organization’s first president from 1971 to 1979. From 1998 to 2010, he was chairman of the NAACP. We speak to Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia; former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous; Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch; and Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He never thought the movement was about only blacks, so he was easily able to grapple with the movement that involved women, that involved the LGBTQ community, that involved climate change,” said Norton.

TRANSCRIPT:

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AMY GOODMAN: Today, in a Democracy Now! special, we remember the life of civil rights pioneer Julian Bond, who died Saturday at the age of 75. Julian Bond first gained prominence in 1960 when he organized a series of student sit-ins while attending Morehouse College. He went on to help found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bond was elected as a Democrat to the Georgia House of Representatives. But members of the Legislature refused to seat him, citing his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. Bond took the case to the Supreme Court and won. He went on to serve 20 years in the Georgia House and Senate. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Julian Bond became the first African-American person nominated for US vice president by a major political party, but he had to withdraw his name because he was just 28 years old – seven years too young to hold the second-highest elected office. Julian Bond would go on to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center. He served as the SPLC’s president from 1971 to ’79. From 1998 to 2010, he was chair of the NAACP.

In a statement, President Obama said, quote, “Julian Bond was a hero and, I’m privileged to say, a friend. Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life. Julian Bond helped change this country for the better,” President Obama wrote.

Julian Bond appeared on Democracy Now! in 2009 as the NAACP was celebrating its 100th year. I asked him to talk about how he joined the NAACP.

JULIAN BOND: Well, I joined the NAACP when I was in college at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and was sporadically active with it for a number of years after that. And then, after the collapse of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I became active again in Atlanta, became president of the Atlanta branch, eventually was elected to the NAACP board of directors, and 11 years ago was elected the NAACP chairman. And I’ll be stepping down from that in February of next year.

AMY GOODMAN: One quick question.

JULIAN BOND: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you a student of Dr. King, actually in his class?

JULIAN BOND: Yes, I’m actually one of the few people, six people in the whole world, who honestly can say I was a student of Martin Luther King’s. He taught one time, one class at Morehouse College. I believe there were six Morehouse college students – Morehouse is all-male – two Spelman College students, all female. So there were eight of us – six or eight of us in the class. And we’re the only people who can say, “I was a student of Dr. King’s.” So, yes, I was.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you remember of that class?

JULIAN BOND: I remember that it was a philosophy class that he co-taught with the man who taught him philosophy when he was a student at Morehouse College. And I remember that, actually, we didn’t talk about philosophy much, but he reminisced about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was then just a few years earlier. He talked about the civil rights movement.

And, you know, I’m so mad at myself, and I think all the rest of us, because to us this was not as extraordinary as it may sound today, that this was just a conversation between teacher and students, and the idea of writing it down, the idea of recording it, never entered any of our minds. And I’ve asked my colleagues, my fellow students who were in the class with me, what notes they took, what they remember, and none of us did that. But luckily, one of my colleagues, Reverend Amos Brown, who’s now pastor of a church in San Francisco and on the NAACP board, he has gotten copies of Dr. King’s notes, the notes he used in that class. And I have my own copy of those. And so, I get some idea of what he hoped to talk about in the class, but almost never did.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Bond speaking in 2009 around the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, which he chaired at the time. Julian Bond died on Saturday in Fort Walton, Florida, at the age of 75. His wife said he died of complications from vascular disease. It was just a brief illness.

Today, we spend the hour looking at the life and legacy of Julian Bond. We’ll have a roundtable. We’re joined by Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia; former NAACP head Ben Jealous; Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch; and Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I want to go to Taylor Branch first in Baltimore. Taylor, when did you first meet Julian Bond?

TAYLOR BRANCH: I first met him in 1968, when he was the boy wonder that we looked up to because he had been seated in the Georgia House of Representatives out of the civil rights movement. I was only 21, but there was a plan afoot to try to challenge the segregationist delegation at the Democratic convention of Lester Maddox, and modeled on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic challenge in 1964. And out of that became – grew a great adventure of traveling around, forming a challenge delegation. Julian went up to Chicago to argue before the credentials committee as the representative. My job was to get him to head this delegation. And he did. And we went up there, and to everyone’s shock and surprise, our delegation was seated in the Democratic convention. That was part of your introduction. So, I was like his gopher. I always joked that I ironed his shirts, while he was giving press conferences and really mesmerizing the world with his good humor and his patriotism and his principles, so much so that the convention got carried away and nominated him for vice president.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about what this meant that he was nominated for vice president at the ripe old age of – was it 28?

TAYLOR BRANCH: He was 28, I was 21. We had the same birthday, which we celebrated together. We were both born on January 14th, the day before Dr. King. I was only 21.

What it really meant – 1968, as younger viewers may not remember, was a crucible year. That was the year when Dr. King had just been shot, when Robert Kennedy was shot that summer two months later, and the world was kind of coming apart over Vietnam. To have a convention in that year, in which, out of all of this chaos over Vietnam and everything, you had this very handsome young boy – young man with a mellifluous voice representing a diverse delegation from the state of Georgia, that then had a segregationist governor, Lester Maddox, nominated – appointed. It was grossly undemocratic. He appointed all the delegates. They were all white, and, as I remember, they were nearly all male. It’s a different world. But Julian spoke for the world that we actually have in conventions now, where they’re representative and they represent the people. And it was so out of joint, but he was infectious. And the whole country kind of got carried away with that, to the point that somebody stood up and nominated him for vice president.

Julian was always vastly amused by that. What he really enjoyed about it was not so much that they nominated him, but that he was too young to be nominated. And he savored that for the rest of his life. But it made him a media phenomenon and a lecturer around the country about the larger issues of justice for the rest of his life.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1967, Julian Bond spoke out against the Vietnam War during an interview on the TV station KVOS.

JULIAN BOND: My position is that things that the United States does overseas are related to its behavior towards people inside the country and that there’s a relationship between what I consider our aggressive behavior in Vietnam and the treatment of minority groups inside the United States, that, taken separately, both are wrong, and taken together, they’re even wronger. I imagine that – or rather, I am of the opinion that our involvement in Vietnam is wrong, it’s illegal, it’s immoral, it’s un-Christian, it’s un-Buddhist, it’s un-Jewish, it’s un-Catholic; we ought not be there; we ought to disengage ourselves; and that there will never be decent treatment for minority peoples in this country until we begin to concentrate on freedom and justice and equality for those at home, and stop worrying about puppet dictatorships and despotic governments in Southeast Asia.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Julian Bond in 1967. We’re talking to Taylor Branch, close friend of Julian Bond, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, best known for – best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, a trilogy entitled America in the King Years. So this opposition to the Vietnam War, not only a crusader on civil rights, affected him being able to be in the Georgia state Legislature. Is that right, Taylor Branch?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes. Actually, in the year before that, in 1966, he was – after he was elected to the Georgia House, he still remained the communications director of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And when that organization issued its first statement against the Vietnam War, Julian read it, not as his statement, but as the statement of SNCC. And it got a lot of publicity, and the Georgia House rose up and said, “Even though he’s elected, we will not permit him to take a seat, because he’s against this war.” So, he came into the position through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that said this war is wrong when we have so many evils here, and, in effect, it’s a neocolonial war. The cadence of that interview that you just played sounded a little bit like Julian – he sounded a little bit like Dr. King there. It didn’t have the normal lilt of Julian, but that’s because this was a very, very serious issue that was tearing the country apart at the time, and he was trying to be as sober as he could.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to continue our conversation with a rolling roundtable. Taylor Branch, please stay with us in Baltimore, close friend of Julian Bond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, the trilogy of books titled America in the King Years. We’ll be joined by Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, which Julian Bond chaired for years; Eleanor Holmes Norton, who worked closely with Julian Bond. We’ll also be talking with Richard Cohen, who is a friend of Julian Bond, just had dinner with him a few nights before he died, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He will be joining us from Montgomery. This is Democracy Now!, as we remember Julian Bond. Stay with us.