This is an interview with blogger Say Burgin and Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of City University of New York and the author or co-author of ten books and numerous articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, the history of social welfare and civil rights in post-9/11 America. Her widely-acclaimed biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks won a 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians; it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and was named one of the 25 Best Academic Titles of 2013 by Choice. Her book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History won the 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize in Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, The Nation, Slate, the Atlantic, Boston Review, Salon, the Intercept, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow her on Twitter @JeanneTheoharis.
Say Burgin: Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement was published in January 2021, and it is a collection of Professor Bond’s lectures from his civil rights movement classes, which he taught for decades. Before you knew Julian Bond as a friend and mentor, you were an undergraduate student in his civil rights movement class. What was he like in the classroom?
Jeanne Theoharis: I took Julian Bond’s class on the civil rights movement when I was a junior in college and it was an extraordinary class—and then had the privilege of being his TA two years later. The class shaped who I am today as a scholar and an activist, and I’ve heard that from so many people who took it. The class very much focused on the how—how the movement gestated, was made, and sustained and also how white supremacy and segregation were gestated, made and sustained. Because of that focus, it wasn’t just about understanding this history in the past – but the present more clearly and how we too could build movements.
One of his key goals was to dismantle the master narrative that had grown up around the movement that clouded our ability to see it clearly. In wry fashion, he encapsulated this narrative as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood, up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” In this master narrative, as Bond made clear, injustice is obvious, decent people took action, and the good guys triumphed —and then Black Power came along and ruined everything. Challenging this romanticized and dangerous fable, Professor Bond’s classes sought to give us a much fuller and more accurate sense of the movement’s origins and effects, its many players, and its many opponents. He also aimed to help us think about the uses behind this mythmaking (the nationalism, the rendering of racism as a flaw rather than a constitutive element of the American politics and society). He wanted us to see the ground-shaking challenge to American society and politics the civil rights movement had wrought, its unpopularity at the time, and the tremendous amount of work still to be done. The class gave me the tools to deconstruct the master narrative—which has animated my own scholarship for the past two decades.
Burgin: So, in this book, we get Professor Bond’s polished lectures. They collectively tell a powerful and detailed story of the Southern movement, and each individual lecture clearly relies on Bond’s reading of the vast movement literature. At times, he’s part of the story he’s telling – amongst student activists in Atlanta organizing sit-ins and pickets in the spring of 1960, for instance – but his memory and his actions aren’t the driving force in these lectures. What does this tell us about who Julian Bond was as both a movement veteran and movement historian?
Theoharis: The book is a rarity of movement-teacher-meets-scholarly-analysis. It’s hard to think of any books like it. First, it’s only possible because he wrote his teaching lectures out in full sentences and polished them over years as he read more, according to his wife (and the co-editor of the book) Pam Horowitz. So we are getting Julian Bond’s master class of the civil rights movement as he taught it for more than two decades. The book is not Julian Bond’s autobiography—he certainly appears in the narrative in moments and many parts are indelibly shaped by his front-row seat as a founding member of SNCC and its Communication Director. But Prof. Bond was also a scholar at heart—so he read everything that came out on the movement and he was constantly updating his lectures to reflect new information or analyses he’d gained. It’s a remarkable synthesis of experience, oral history, and movement scholarship.
Burgin: Professor Bond’s lectures in this collection are richly detailed, and the cast of civil rights activists that peoples the lectures are introduced and discussed with vivid humanism. What is the lesson Bond offers educators and students by doing this – by slowing down in time and fully fleshing out the community of civil rights activists?
Theoharis: One of the stories I tell in the introduction is my recollection of some of those first classes in the course I took with him. The lecture on the Montgomery bus boycott lasted for days—and I have to admit, there I sat my twenty-year-old self worried that we’d never make it to the 1960s at this rate. First, he started back in the 1930s and 1940s—with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Montgomery NAACP, giving us a wide cast of characters (NAACP leader E.D. Nixon, Women’s Political Council President JoAnn Robinson, Reverend Vernon Johns who was Dexter Avenue Baptist’s pastor before Martin Luther King, a very young Martin and Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and so many others). And then when he got to December 1, 1955, he went hour by hour, showing who called whom (Parks called Gray who called Robinson) and who did what to show how they turned Parks’ courageous stand into a boycott. This indelibly shaped how I would come to understand and teach the movement—as a series of choices, of actions, of painstaking organizing, changing course, and persevering. He made clear that the movement was a movement not because of a couple of brilliant leaders but because a host of people made it so. And by seeing this, it was easier to imagine how we could do it again.
Burgin: As you’ve written elsewhere, Professor Bond highlighted the courage and the efforts of young activists throughout his teaching. What do you think are some of the more powerful moments in his lectures where we can see him doing this?
Theoharis: The chapters on the sit-ins and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are so vivid. Similar to the boycott, we get to see day-by-day how young people imagined, built, and grew these sit-ins, how they made their own organization (SNCC) with the powerful assistance of Ella Baker, how many adults mentored them, how many adults opposed this disruptive activism, and how SNCC would change the nation. We’re inundated with the cliché that young people are the future, but this book shows how much a group of young people frustrated with the inaction of the older generation took action and more action (and were opposed not just by white supremacists but at times by older civil rights leaders) and forced the nation to reckon with its original sin of racism. It also shows how people changed by being in action and how the freedom they imagined expanded and grew.
Burgin: And what was the pedagogical impetus behind highlighting young people? How did he think younger generations could be changed by seeing themselves in the histories he taught?
Theoharis: To teach the movement was a way to carry it forward. The point, then, was not to tell us young people what to do—that the activists of old had the right way that needed to be drummed into us. Rather, he sought to challenge the master narrative and the fables that had grown up around the movement and the popular memory of it to ensure that we grasped the complications, joys, and work of building movements and the power of youth leadership. He knew that young people had changed this nation and he wanted us to understand how.
Burgin: On the surface – in the table of contents, for instance – this book could look like Professor Bond was teaching the classic narrative of the Southern civil rights movement. But the lectures in fact give a very different history. How do they do that?
Theoharis: In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, I write about the fable of the civil rights movement –an American exceptionalist tale where the Southern movement is rendered courageous but obvious and decent people do the right thing and America inexorably moves toward justice. The first person to teach me to recognize that fable was Julian Bond. His class—this book—shows us how much more there was to the Southern struggle than has made it to the textbooks or the public ways we tend to celebrate the civil rights movement. It is fundamentally a history of the power of organizing, of how it happened—and as such, the cast of characters is extremely wide. There are a lot more heroes—this is not a story about charismatic leaders but about the range of people possessing vision and extraordinary courage who slowly, with great effort and difficulty and sacrifice and vision, changed this country. But it’s also a story of the range of people who stood in the way. Bull Connor and George Wallace aren’t the only villains here. Julian zeroed in on the role of the moderate, the people who remained silent or stayed on the sidelines, and how powerful that was in terms of maintaining Southern Jim Crow.
Another lesson that has stayed with me is how hard it was to do what they did and how so many people didn’t and couldn’t. He showed us the three people on the bus that day seated next to Rosa Parks who got up when the driver asked and a bus full of people who said nothing. He showed us the many churches (Black and white) that closed their doors to the movement; he showed us the red-baiting that rendered movement activists like himself as possible traitors. I think we like to imagine that if we had lived 60 years ago, we would have been in SNCC. Professor Bond made it possible to imagine how we could have been—or could forge our own path today– but also made clear how many people weren’t.