Julian Bond Was a Radical Long Before MLK

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Julian Bond on location at the Lincoln Memorial during the filming of the documentary "Julian Bond: Reflections from the Frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement" Photo credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley (CC BY 2.0)

Though not a household name like his peers Martin Luther King, Jr., or John Lewis, Julian Bond was a legendary civil rights leader who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). These two organizations have played crucial roles in black history, as Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer notes in the latest installment of his podcast “Scheer Intelligence.” 

Speaking with Michael G. Long, the editor of Bond’s collected essays “Race Man: Selected Works,” and Pamela Horowitz, an SPLC attorney and the black leader’s widow, Scheer discusses Bond’s long career and how, at crucial moments, he staked radical positions that moved other civil rights leaders left. The three discuss how most notably, it was partly SNCC’s position on the Vietnam War that encouraged MLK to take a strong anti-war stance. 

There had been anti-war sentiment bubbling up in SNCC,” recalls Horowitz, “and then at a voting rights demonstration and Tuskegee, a SNCC person named Sammy Young, who had been in the Navy and lost a kidney---so he had to go to the bathroom more often than most people---and he went to use, he used a whites-only bathroom at a gas station in Tuskegee, and the gas station owner shot him in the back and killed him. 

“That was the impetus for SNCC to issue its anti-war statement,” she continues, “which was very strong, and criticized the United States for its treatment of black people around the world, but including the United States of America.” 

Scheer makes the link to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he indicted his own country as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

“Martin Luther King, Jr. did say he got a lot of his inspiration, and he was kept in check by these young people in SNCC,” says the Truthdig editor in chief. “[Bond and John Lewis] were the first ones to connect the Civil Rights Movement with, as you said, other movements, but particularly the anti-war movement, which was developing strongly. 

“It had to do with the military budget taking resources, it had to do with the hypocrisy of going to supposedly fight for the freedom of people in another country when you're not free in Georgia or anywhere else.”

Bond’s strong anti-war stance partly led to the Georgia state House of Representatives attempting to deny him the seat he won in 1965, a controversy which culminated in the Supreme Court case, Bond v. Floyd. In 1966, the highest court in the land unanimously ruled that the Georgia House had denied the civil rights leader his first amendment rights and were obliged to allow him to take his seat, a position he held for four terms. But it wasn’t just the Vietnam War that Bond came out strongly against. In a discussion about the title of the book, Long explains that while Bond was a “race man,” someone who fought for his community over his own self-interests, above all, to both Long and historian Doug Brinkley, who wrote the afterword to the book, he was much more than that. 

Bond was a race man, and that's why the book is titled that way,” Long asserts. “And yet this was a man who advanced the Civil Rights Movement, in my mind, more than anybody else. This is a man who connected the Civil Rights Movement to women's rights, to LGBTQ+ rights, to human rights, in ways that other civil rights leaders just didn't do. 

“So yeah, he was a race man to his core,” the editor concludes, “but he was also a lot more than that, too---he was a human rights man.”

Crucially, Bond was also among the few politicians to emerge from the civil rights era who understood the role economic policies played in oppressing people of color. 

“[Bond, who was himself in politics, said politics is] ‘the art of seeing who gets how much of what from whom,’” Scheer notes. “And he had a very strong sense of obligation to not just the elite in the black community, which Atlanta had, but more so, he had a real sense of ‘how is this playing out in the poorest neighborhoods.’

“I think that is a very important part of his legacy,” says the Truthdig editor in Chief. “[Bond’s message] is what Martin Luther King was saying at the end of his life, before he was assassinated: If we fail to do the economic justice component, the Civil Rights Movement will have stalled and failed most of these people that we're concerned about. “

As the conversation wraps up, Horowitz relays the message she believes her husband, who died in 2015, would give to those who have been distressed by the rise of far-right white nationalism and the election of Donald Trump. 

“If Julian were here, he would say, ‘Don't agonize, organize,’” says the SPLC attorney. “And that would be what he would want us to be doing.”

Listen to the full discussion between Long, Horowitz and Scheer as they recall Bond through his vital work as well as through their own personal memories of the civil rights leader.



Joshua Scheer