A Conversation with Legendary Civil Rights Activist Julian Bond
“To see old friends, to see old buddies, to see these people with whom I went through the most important years of my life, just means so much to me. I’m so happy to be here. I don’t want it to end. I’m going to miss it and I know that some of these people I’ll never see again.”
Julian Bond, June 27, 2014
This interview was originally conducted in the office of Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan at the 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, June 27, 2014, in Jackson, Mississippi. It was recorded as part of Eric Mann’s program, Voices from the Frontlines, on KPFK Pacifica 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.
In June 2014 I went to Jackson, Mississippi to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer—one of the great periods in U.S. and Black revolutionary history. Thanks to the support of Alan Minsky, the program director of KPFK Pacifica in Los Angeles and my own organization, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, I went to Mississippi to conduct a series of interviews/conversations with veterans of the civil rights movement and to broadcast them within days of the event. I worked with Julian Lamb of the Strategy Center and film-makers Katherine Murphy and William Sabourin in what turned out to be intense, exhilarating 12 hour days of recording, filming, and editing.
In the summer of 1964, when Mississippi Summer was happening in real time, I had just graduated from Cornell and was working in a settlement house in the South Bronx with Black and Puerto Rican families. By the fall of 1964 I was a field secretary with the Congress of Racial Equality in Harlem and the Northeast and my life had already been shaped by the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner – among the Mississippi Martyrs. It was also shaped by the history-making organizing of CORE and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. When I met Dave Dennis, a field secretary for CORE in Mississippi and later Fannie Lou Hamer I understood even at 21 that I was a soldier in the army but these were our generals—our true heroes and I was so lucky to be part of The Movement. I did not have the courage or the bravery to stand down the Klan or to go door to door among Black sharecroppers in Mississippi but I did go door to door in Harlem, Baltimore, D.C., and Newark in Black communities as part of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movement—and I am still doing so today in South Los Angeles.
During the Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary I taped conversations with Hollis Watkins, Dave Dennis, Derrick Johnson, Frankye Adams Johnson, Gwen Simmons, Mike Sayer, Dorothy Zellner, John O’Neal, Bob Zellner, Leroy Johnson, Beverly Hogan, and Julian Bond. Each of them was a magnificent story in themselves.
I remember the conversation with Julian so vividly. Strikingly handsome, Julian put forth every sentence so succinctly and carefully formulated, generous and ironic with a profound sense of history—an introspective and truly modest self. I was also struck by what a fierce warrior he was and how every story was one of struggle and confrontation with the forces of evil and the commitment to fight to win. At the time I was struck by how so many of us who fought for civil rights, worked with SNCC and CORE, helped the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge in 1964 were still involved in The Movement in 2014 and how truly fortunate we were to have witnessed and made history. In Julian Bond’s case I was well aware I was talking with a true giant of the Civil Rights Movement.
Julian died on August 15. The transcript of our conversation is printed below.
Hi everybody, this is Eric Mann, host of Voices from the Frontlines. I am in Jackson, Mississippi with Julian Bond--one of the many heroes of the civil rights movement. Julian, while a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia helped to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He made sure SNCC organized its own media campaigns as its communications director for 5 years. In 1965, he was elected to the Georgia State Legislature and was denied admission after his election by the white legislators. That became a cause celebre for the movement and after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor he was admitted to the legislature in 1967. Bond was elected to four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives and later to six terms in the Georgia Senate. In 1971, he helped to found the Southern Poverty Law Center where he served as its president. From 1998 to 2010, he was chairman of board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Julian I want to begin by thanking you for the wonderful talk you gave at the 50th anniversary of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee that I attended at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2010. The scope and the politics were so impressive--it's truly an historic document.
JB: Thank you, I worked hard on that.
EM: What was the pivotal moment in your life when you went from believing in things to thinking you had a real obligation to act?
JB: Well it must had been in 1960, when a student approached me in a cafÃ© in Atlanta and held up a newspaper to me and said “Have you seen this?” and I though he was talking about ‘Do you read the paper?’ but he was talking about an article about the Greensboro sit-in and prompted me to join him and repeating that here in Atlanta, and that’s when I took my first big step.
EM: Well that was quick. You saw a picture and you organized a sit-in.
EM: How were you treated?
JB: Pretty well. Atlanta was a relatively moderate place in race relations. If you got outside of the city, you’re really in trouble but within the city limits it was okay. So the police acted as you want policemen to, nothing really harmful but it was a good introduction to activism for me.
EM: Now I make the distinction between organizing and activism because to me activism is an “act” of participation but organizing becomes a long term commitment to building an actual organization and institution. When did you think you made the transition from seeing yourself as an activist to someone who wanted to build an institution like SNCC?
JB: Surely after the incident I just told you about and it’s interesting because I got involved in the sit-in demonstrations believing that would be a relatively short lived act process, but I joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee believing that would be relatively short lived but longer than the sit-ins and didn’t think it would last forever, for the rest of my life and of course, it didn’t; but thought that would be a little longer lasting. Then I joined the NAACP which was already ancient at that time and it’s over 109 years old now, so that was another example of longevity with an organization and I’m not really associated with any organization right now, but still I’m doing many of the things I was doing in those other organizations.
EM: Well, let’s go back to relationships with some pivotal figures, okay? Ella Baker.
JB: Ella Baker. I was thinking about her today. We saw a picture of her, it was up on the screen and we were talking about those who have passed away. Ella Baker lived in an apartment building in Atlanta called Walla Haji. It was named after the people that built it, whose name were Wallis and Hodges. She had a very small apartment there and I remember visiting her in her apartment and her taking out a quart of bourbon which we welcome to me because I was drinking bourbon at the time. She was just a remarkable person and, peculiarly I could never call her Ella. Many of the women who worked for SNCC called her Ella but I always called her Ms. Baker, she was always Ms. Baker to me and she always will be Ms. Baker to me and she was such an expert at saying to you “Not do this” but “Have you thought of doing this?” There’s a great difference between those two things and she was just a master at it.
EM: I think it’s very important for people to realize that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee first came together to be just that—a coordinating committee. There were a lot of sit-ins and the students said, “Wouldn’t it be important for us to get together to have a mutual strategy, a mutual tactical plan.”
JB: Ella Baker had the understanding that we might not have the experience and might not have thought to do this in an organized way but wouldn’t it be better if we developed one, developed ourselves.
EM: It was an important turn of history that she encouraged the students to form their own independent organization rather than part of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference—where she worked as the time.
JB: She encouraged the young people to not be an adjunct of SCLC or NAACP or CORE. “Why don’t you make one of your own, and we made one of our own.”
EM: James Forman.
JB: I first met James Forman when he was fresh from Monroe, North Carolina where he had met with Robert F. Williams NAACP President who returned Klan fire with Black fire.
He was fresh from that and he came to Atlanta where he met people from this new phenomenon, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Very quickly we understood that in part, because of his age-- he was older than we were --and part because of his wisdom that he’d make a great director of this organization and we prevailed on him to take it and bam there he was.
(EM note, Robert F. Williams was the president of a local NAACP Chapter who organized people to armed self-defense. Williams later wrote a very influential book, Negroes with Guns. In the Black South “non-violence” and “armed self-defense” were in fact two parts of a whole and thus it was not anomalous for Forman to first meet with Robert F. Williams who, as Julian explained, “Returned Klan fire with Black fire” and then meet with the Student Non-Violent group. Nor was it anomalous that many of the non-violent organizers were protected by armed Black Mississippi residents.)
EM: He came out of the service?
JB: Yeah, he came out of the service and I think his service period was an example of building for him, learning new things for him--in ways we did not have. Almost none of us had been in the service and almost none of us went in the service. I never did. But I thought this was some training for him, that he had advanced above the level that we were.
EM. I read some old documents that he was writing about the theories of organization and how could SNCC function. Forman gave a lot of attention to the actual building of an organization.
JB: I never met Malcolm X for longer than a period of ‘hello, how you doing? Good to see you.’ So I can’t say I knew him in a real sense of the word but I was around him on a couple of occasions and had seen him operate and watched him operate and grew to understand that here’s a man who had a real idea of how to go about things, how to plan, how to go from here to there, in a way that, I think, younger people didn’t quite know. So he was just such a remarkable man, it was a thrill to be around him.
One of the great things that I remember about him is him saying to the crowd, not to me, but to the crowd he said, “Man, those people in the Southern movement make me look funny” he said “they’re really on to something.” So you know, you appreciate that kind of pat on the back--like another one we got from President Kennedy. You get those on the White House tapes. He’s talking to his advisors during the Birmingham Campaign complaining about something that had happened in Birmingham the night before and he says, “Those SNCC people are sons of bitches.” I love that.
EM: Fannie Lou Hamer
JB: Again, I did know Ms. Hamer more than I knew Malcolm X. She was just such a pleasant person, such an outgoing person, who didn’t have much formal education but was so outreaching sort of person you felt you can be with. You can be close to, you can learn from her, you can be a part of her, she was just remarkable in that way, she was open to you, that was her genius I think.
EM: You know. She came to the Newark Community Union Project in the fall of 1965 and we had a second floor office and she walked in and said, “If I come back next year and you don’t have a storefront, you’ll never see me again. How do you expect people to climb these stairs?” We got a ground level storefront the next month.
Then she gave a three-hour presentation about her struggle at the August 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As you know but some of our listeners don’t, at that convention the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which SNCC helped to organize, challenged the lily white “official” Democratic Party delegation. They asked the delegates at the convention and the credential committee to “unseat” the racist delegation and seat the MFDP. Their movement was gaining great strength but the Democratic leadership, led by Lyndon Johnson, was very frightened about Barry Goldwater and was afraid that white people in the South would leave the Democratic Party and vote Republican—which of course they did. So, Ms. Hamer tells the story about private negotiations the MFDP leadership had with United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, and even Vice President Humphrey himself. The Democrats proposed that the MFDP drop its challenge, agree to two “at large” seats, which meant they were not even from Mississippi, allow the racist delegation to be seated, with the promise that 4 years later, in 1968, if the official delegation did not integrate they would seat the MFDP. She told us, so, we were under a great deal of pressure to accept what they called “the compromise” but Robert Moses and I refused. They said to me, “Ms. Hamer if you take the compromise, Hubert Humphrey could be vice president of the United States.” And she said, “With all due respect Mr. Humphrey. I didn’t come all the way from Mississippi to make you vice president of the United States. I thought you wanted to be vice president of the United States to fight for the civil rights of people from Mississippi. ” And then she turned to us and said, “There’s two lessons here. One, compromise is not a bad word. For one party wins the compromise and one party loses and if they offer us a wining compromise, I would’ve taken it. But it was a bad deal not a compromise and yet they tried to make us look like we would not compromise. Number two, never sign on to anything that you cannot take to your base in good conscience because you are representing people and if you come back and say ‘I didn’t get what we were demanding” they don’t mind, but if you say ‘I gave it away,’ you’ll be in big big trouble.” And that totally transformed my understanding of negotiations, strategy, and tactics and I have taught and tried to practice what Ms. Hamer taught me all of my life. I’ve been in situations and negotiations where I realized, no, we’re going to bring it back to the group and if the group doesn’t want it, we’re not going to do it.
EM. Did you play an active role in the MFDP?
JB: No not really because of James Forman, this is a funny story. SNCC took a trip to African and I went, to Guinea, and some people John Lewis and Don Harris went further to other African states. That was I think just before the convention in Atlantic City. And Forman told me I couldn’t go because I had been to Africa. But he went to Africa and he went to Atlantic City too.
EM: That sounds like James Forman too.
Let’s talk about your successful candidacy for the state legislature of Georgia. One of the things that is fascinating about that is that SNCC, from the MFDP to your candidacy, saw a dialectical relationship between direct action, sustained radical reform campaigns, movement-building and electoral insurgencies. How did you get the idea of running for the legislature?
JB: This came about because a federal court had reapportioned the Georgia legislature. Georgia had a most malapportioned legislature of all the states in the United States. It meant that rural areas had enormous power, urban areas where the Black population was, had relatively little power and so a court ordered the legislature reapportioned. I found myself living in the middle of one of these new districts of equal size with all the districts and it meant that Black people would be elected to the House of Representatives in Georgia for the first time since Reconstruction. So I ran for one of these districts and I won. A friend of mine, Ben Brown, who sadly has died, ran in the adjacent district. We were very close. He won his, I won mine and we were all set to take our seats. We knew that we would meet hostility by white legislators who didn’t want Black people in the legislature; we didn’t expect any trouble, just some reaction but then just before we were to take our seats, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee issued an anti-war statement which if I told you about today you would say ‘people say that all the time’ but then it sounded radical and extreme and it caused a great deal of hoo ha in the general population and the legislators were just outraged that we would dare to have opinions about foreign policies and those opinions would be contrary to theirs. So, as the date for taking my seat arrived, the opposition began to bubble and rise up. When the day for me to take my seat came, legislators-to-be decided to put me out of the legislature. They declared my seat vacant and called for a new election and I ran for another election and I won that election. They called me out of the legislature again, I ran again for third time and in the interim I filed a lawsuit and it was heard by a three judge federal court. The two judges appointed by President Kennedy voted against me and the judge appointed by President Nixon voted for me. This was just at the time when the Republican Party was in the middle of some transition and the Democratic Party was in the middle of transition too. I appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. I had never been to the Supreme Court so I went up to hear my case being argued and I found myself sitting in the front row of the spectators seats, next to Victor Rabinowitz, who was my lawyer.
His law partner was Leonard Boudin who was arguing the case for me. So I’m sitting next to Victor Rabinowitz and listening to the attorney general of Georgia arguing that they had a right to throw me out--that I had said things that were contrary to American public opinion and therefore I ought to be thrown out of the legislature. Then something remarkable happened. I had never been to the Supreme Court before and I didn’t understand that the justices would interfere with lawyers. Justice Byron White who was well known as “Whizzer” White because he was the only Supreme Court justice who played for the National Football League said to the attorney general from Georgia, about his argument, “Is that all you have?” he said. “You come all this way and that’s all you have.” I said to Victor Rabinowitz “We’re winning now aren’t we?” He said, “Yes you are” and we won nine to nothing.
EM: That’s a beautiful story. It's important to highlight that Victor Rabinowitz is a story unto himself, and with Leonard Boudin you had two of two of the most brilliant and effective civil rights attorneys of the era.
JB: The ACLU wouldn’t support me, wouldn’t defend me because I had Leonard Boudin and Victor Rabinowitz as my attorneys. Here are people helping my civil liberties but apparently I didn’t have the civil liberty to choose a lawyer of my own choosing.
EM: So you are telling us that the ACLU would not support your own choice of brilliant attorneys because they were socialists and close to the Communist Party. Fortunate for you, you fought for your own civil liberties and retained your own attorneys.
JB: Oh yeah, they were just fabulous. I couldn’t have chosen anybody as good as they were.
EM: Let’s go back a little. What did you talk to the people about in this predominantly Black district?
JB: Well, first I laid out a platform and then I went back to them asking them asking them how they liked about it and what they would change…One thing was to increase the minimum wage in Georgia to $1.50 which was nothing but it was fairly well thought out and I had vetted it with my own constituents. I had asked them, “What do you think about this is this OK, do you like that and they were just astounded because they had never had anybody ask them these questions. They had never elected a legislator from this district. It was an innovation for them as much as it was for me.
EM: Well at the time, we were very moved by the concept of participatory democracy. I was organizing in Newark at the time and we in NCUP (Newark Community Union Project saw ourselves as a northern ally of SNCC trying to do the same thing in the North.) We had a vision of a revolutionary democracy in which the people at the grassroots would be asked for once what they wanted and then the question after they were asked was: could the people develop enough power to win?”
So I want to jump after the MFDP because I am very interested in this period about all the different choices that people made after the MFDP and Atlantic City. Obviously Stokley Carmichael moved to the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama which I thought was very exciting to build an actual base on the ground with John Hulett and to build an actual Black Panther Party independent of the Democrats. Others, along with Stokley, explored revolutionary directions. Other moved to more nationalist directions. Other people moved to reform the Democratic Party, they said, “No, it’s not automatically the end of the conversation about the Democrats even though they sold us out in Atlantic City. Of those paths, what were you thinking at the time? I think you and I are always trying to keep everyone in the same organization and playing the “why can’t we all get along” role, “I understand these differences but do we need to break up over them” but where were you and what were your efforts to build a broader civil rights/Black movement at the time.
JB: I didn’t try to build the Democratic Party in a different direction. I wish now I had. I had done something to create a political party of some kind with some relevance to what people really needed and what they wanted but I didn’t do that. I ran every 2 years as a Democrat. I won elections one after the other for 20 years, got elected to the State House, got elected to the State Senate, so that’s what I did. And I didn’t, I’m sorry to say I could have done or should have done more in Georgia itself. Instead, I traveled all over the country and got invitations to speak here and there and someplace else. After the Chicago Democratic Party Convention in 1968 I talked about the war and had an anti-war attitude and argued against the war. I talked about race relations and what the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee could do and what my listeners could do what people could do in their own neighborhoods, their own communities so that’s what I spent almost the next say 20 odd years doing that.
EM: I don’t think people understand the significance of the civil rights movement taking such a militant stand against the war in Vietnam. When SNCC came out with “Hell No We Won’t Go” it was the first time a civil rights group frontally challenged the war and indicated it was a colonial war of occupation. The Students for a Democratic Society organized a March on Washington against the War in Vietnam in April 1965 and Robert Moses of SNCC compared Vietnam and Mississippi as anti-colonial struggles. Then Muhammad Ali’s “No Viet Cong Ever Called Me a N-----“ and Dr. King’s “Breaking the Silence Riverside Speech against the war.” And because of the explosive combination of Black liberation and anti-war organizing you were denied your seat in the legislature, Ali was sentenced to 5 years in prison for refusing the draft and the Democratic Party liberals came down on Dr. King like a ton of bricks.
JB: That is interesting to me. I met a man who put on the first moratorium against the war in Vietnam who told me an interesting history between the first and the second. At the first there were many Americans against the war and they want it stopped. This was Nixon was president. But from the first to the second the repression just grew and grew and grew. Vice President Agnew was unleashed and began to attack the student protestors in a vituperative way the way he had not done so before and something showed what the war machine would do. I had not understood this history before and it was interesting for him to explain what had been happening to me that I had not understood before.
EM: Julian, what lead you to the NAACP?
JB: Well SNCC had disappeared—destroyed by the federal government and there seemed to be no alternative to it and I looked at the NAACP because in Atlanta at the time, the NAACP was a vibrant strong organization, a neighborhood based organization and it seemed to be the last man standing and I said “I want to be a part of that.” So, I joined the NAACP but I’d not done much with the NAACP as a member but only active in the sense that I’ve paid my dues, I got elected chairman of the local NAACP, then I got elected to the Board of Directors of the NAACP, I had a fight with the incumbent board chairman. He managed to throw me out of the NAACP. I fought back.
EM: Julian, do you have a problem getting thrown out of things?
JB: Yes. He threw me out of the NAACP so then I got elected chairman of the board and I served as chairman of the Board for 11 years.
EM: In my experience, when I was working with CORE and supporting the work of SNCC and the MFDP do you think it’s fair to say—in the let’s say 1963-1968 period-- SNCC and CORE saw the NAACP as a big obstacle.
JB: I saw it as a big obstacle too when I was young but I came to understand it’s sturdy, it’s here, if you go over there it’s really great, if you go over there it’s not so great.
EM: When I read I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne I learned so much about how the NAACP in Mississippi and throughout the South was the bulwark of the Black movement in the Deep South repressive areas. Like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers building NAACP chapters, facing lynchings, arming themselves, and building actual resistance on the ground. I changed my opinion and I understood I did not understand this history right.
JB: Yes, me too. Were you in the hall when they read the obituary of all those people who put those obituaries up on the screen? Many of them started in the NAACP did this in the NAACP, did that in the NAACP, built the NAACP, without the NAACP the attacks on us would have been even more violent and it may have taken a few more years to get it started.
EM: I think we both believe that the election of Barack Obama as president as well as his re-election was a true victory for the civil rights movement, the civil rights act, the voting right act and a blow against white supremacy. But given what I believe are the profound limits of his presidency—his refusal to challenge the prison system, support for a Wall Street agenda, and of course his international aggressions including drones, 6 years into the Obama administration, what does that model indicate for you?
JB: Well, it indicates to me that you have to do more than elect a president. You have to elect congress people. The movements I’m associated with learned to do the one [elect a president] but didn’t learn to do the other [elect a strong congress] and really messed up when it came to the off-season elections. They fell victim to the tales they told us that in the off-season elections the president’s party always loses. Sure it does but why does it have to be so, why can’t we do better? Why doesn’t this marvelous machine that elected Barack Obama also elect 1 or 2 or 50 new members of Congress? If we don’t do it we are doomed to just elect a lot great presidents and that’s it. I have plenty of disappointments and I’m sure I’m going to have some more but I’m so happy he is here.
EM: Well Julian, last thoughts. There must be a lot going through your head on the 50th anniversary; so many people you’ve seen, reconstructing your own life, share with me just a couple of things that’s going on in your mind.
JB: You have been saying that it’s not just nostalgia but a lot of it is nostalgia for me. To see old friends, to see old buddies, to see these people with whom I went through the most important years of my life, just means so much to me. I’m so happy to be here. I don’t want it to end but I know we just have as of today two more days. Today just one more day--I don’t count Sunday. I’m going to miss it and I know that some of these people I’ll never see again.
As I don’t see some of the people I saw when we did the 30th anniversary and as we’re doing this, so I feel sad about that but I also see the young people that are here and think this is our future and they are being educated in what they need to be doing and many of the older people here, people of my age and older are continuing doing what they were doing. It’s not like they’re just sitting down saying, “Here you take over.” It’s standing up and saying, “Let’s do this together.” I’m optimistic about this, I’ve been optimist all my life, in spite of having common sense at the same time but I believe we can do it. Whatever needs to be done--we can do
EM: I completely agree with you and I want to take back the way I used the word “nostalgia” word. My concern is that I think some of the younger civil rights activists are dismissive of the amazing accomplishments of groups like SNCC, CORE, SCLC, Malcolm, Martin, and perceive civil rights veterans as dwelling in the past. But I think you are absolutely right. Those of you who lead the struggle in Mississippi and the South had an experience you were blessed to go through. And had a level of relationship to each other and a level of personal risk--a level of personal transformation in which your own beliefs were challenged daily and relationships that were built under conditions that people today cannot imagine definitely. We both agree that historical memory but also just loyalty and affection is critical to any historical future—which is why we are here today. So thanks for that reorientation.
EM: And the last thing is that I think all organizers are optimists by our very nature—which is why we win victories and will have to win a lot more starting now.
JB: Yes, I think you have to be.
EM: Well thank you so much Julian Bond, it’s been really a pleasure to be with you.
JB: All right.