What Julian Bond Taught Me About Politics and Power

Julian Bond in 2011 (NASA/GSFC/Pat Izzo via Flickr)

I found myself thinking about Julian Bond when the news broke that Georgia had elected its first Black senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock. What a triumph of long-term organizing, of tilling the soil, for this to happen.

In many ways, the path Warnock rode to the Senate began in 1965 when SNCC co-founder Julian Bond mobilized the power of the Black vote to successfully win a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. Bond’s colleagues refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He fought them to the Supreme Court and won, and on January 9, 1967, Julian Bond was sworn in.

Warnock and Ossoff’s victories led to a massive outpouring of praise for the leadership of Stacey Abrams and the memory of John Lewis. As visionary as Stacey Abrams is, as courageous as John Lewis was, our desire for charismatic heroes misses how this sort of change happens—as Abrams herself has made clear and Bond would have reminded us.

I had the great fortune of taking a class on the Southern civil rights movement with Julian Bond as an undergraduate and then serving as his teaching assistant a few years later. Part of the goal of the class was to disrupt the stultifying, politically convenient myths—the master narrative—that had grown around the movement. That narrative, he quipped, reduced the movement to “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.”  In this master narrative, charismatic leaders are the key, injustice is obvious, decent people took action, and the good guys triumphed.

Challenging this romanticized and dangerous fable, Bond sought to give us a fuller, more accurate sense of the movement’s origin, of the many local people that made its success, and the variety of its opponents. He also aimed to help us think about the uses behind this mythmaking—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.

Here are four lessons I learned from him:

Lesson 1: Movements are made; they don’t just happen. It wasn’t “Rosa Parks sat down and then people boycotted the buses.” His treatment of the Montgomery bus boycott—what led to it, what it took, how it worked—spanned three classes. He started back in the 1930s and 1940s Character by character, he detailed the various people who came together to turn Rosa Parks’s bus stand into the Montgomery bus boycott and how they sustained that effort for 382 days.

Starting decades before, he traced all the people who would come together: from E. D. Nixon to Jo Ann Robinson to Claudette Colvin to Rosa Parks herself, from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge. And then, painstakingly, once Parks made her courageous stand, he took us hour by hour, day by day, to show us who talked to whom, what decisions were made, how a movement flowered from Parks’s courageous refusal. Rosa Parks called Fred Gray, who called Jo Ann Robinson; E. D. Nixon called the ministers and reporter Jo Azbell; Jo Ann Robinson snuck into her office at Alabama State College and ran off fifty thousand leaflets; and on and on. By showing how the boycott happened, it also became possible to imagine how we could do it again.

Lesson 2: The changes accomplished by the civil rights movement were not the province of presidents or charismatic leaders, but accomplished by the efforts, freedom visions, and sacrifices of scores of everyday local people possessing great courage and vision. He insisted those local people must be known, their particular contributions lifted up—and so he did: Annie Devine, E.W. Steptoe, Johnnie Carr, Fred Gray, Unita Blackwell, Reverend T. J. Jemison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gloria Richardson, Mae Bertha Carter and many, many others.

And many of those people were young people. He showed us the key leadership roles and militant action that young people took—Barbara Johns in Virginia, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine (who had inspired him at the time), and his many friends and comrades that started and organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

He highlighted the elders who supported and nourished their work and how cherished that support was. But Professor Bond also made clear that this kind of youth leadership scared many people then, just as it scares many people now. Many white and Black people did not support what SNCC did–so he cautioned that we shouldn’t be surprised when adults, even adults sympathetic to our cause, would be some of the first to criticize us or say we weren’t going about it the right way, because that was what had happened throughout the civil rights movement.

Twelve-hour-meetings, mistakes, disagreements–the civil rights movement was made by people who were figuring and thinking and acting and learning and rethinking and adjusting. Professor Bond wasn’t afraid to talk about that process, about the learning that happened in the movement. There were serious generational and ideological divides, and they didn’t always agree or get it right the first time.

Lesson 3: There was nothing natural or easy about their activism. Professor Bond spent a lot of time detailing the sit-ins and Freedom Rides—how people imagined what was possible beyond what others thought feasible or reasonable, stepped forward and insisted on going beyond what they thought they could do. He told a funny story of his own initiation into the struggle.

“What do you think about the Greensboro sit-in?” fellow Morehouse student Lonnie King asked twenty-year-old Bond.

“I think it’s great!”

“Don’t you think it ought to happen here?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m sure it will happen here,” I responded. “Surely someone here will do it.”

Then [it came] to me, as it came to others in those early days in 1960, a query, an invitation, a command: “Why don’t we make it happen here?”

In his graceful way, he showed how he—like us—admired courageous action but imagined someone else would take it forward. And then he realized that it needed to be him; that assuming someone else would summon the courage was part of how oppressive systems were maintained.

Four college freshmen embarked on that first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. If you had three friends, you could start, his lectures made clear. The Freedom Rides too, when they encountered massive violence in Anniston and CORE pulled back, the young people of SNCC stepped forward and kept them going. They were determined that the message would not be that violence could stop the movement—and by pushing forward, they forced the nation to see, and the Kennedys to act.

Lesson 4: Professor Bond also stressed the choice of inaction, the choice of silence. Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor, Alabama governor George Wallace, and Medgar Evers’s killer Byron de la Beckwith were not the only villains in his lectures. He made sure we understood the role the people who sat on the sidelines and allowed racial injustice and white resistance—be it physical violence, economic assassination, or social ostracism—to grow and spread.

He reminded us how uncomfortable people were with the movement’s disruptive tactics fifty years ago—colleges suspended SNCC students, newspapers editorialized against them, moderate leaders decried civil disobedience and disruptiveness, and allies traded their rights away. So to just focus on the likes of Bull Connors missed what made the movement so very hard and why many of its goals remain unattained today.

Professor Bond made sure we understood that many of these civil rights heroes and heroines we celebrate today spent years and decades in the wilderness.  The civil rights movement was unpopular at the time. In a May 1961 Gallup survey, only 22 percent of Americans approved of what the Freedom Riders were doing, and 57 percent said that “the sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom buses and other demonstrations by Negroes were hurting the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.” In 1966, a year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, 85 percent of white people and 30 percent of Black people nationally believed that civil rights demonstrations by Black people hurt the advancement of civil rights. Lest we see this as a Southern phenomenon in 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a majority of white New Yorkers said the civil rights movement had gone too far.

Professor Bond made clear that no amount of respectability protects you from the relentlessness and fury of that opposition. Yet he was a “hopeless optimist.” “I always believe things will work out,” he said. Not because injustice once revealed is fixed. Not because if one acts right and tries hard and wears a nice suit, then things have a way of working out. But because what he knew firsthand was the power of ordinary people to change this country through their will, tenacity, and perseverance.

That power was evident again in Georgia when Rev. Warnock was sworn in.

**To make it possible for people to continue to learn from Professor Bond, the author recently edited Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement with Pamela Horowitz. 

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Jeanne Theoharis

Jeanne Theoharis is the Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. Her research centers on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, social welfare and civil rights in post-9/11 America. She is the editor of several books and the author of the award-winning books 'The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks; (2013) and 'More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History' (2018). Follow her on Twitter @JeanneTheoharis.

Comments on “What Julian Bond Taught Me About Politics and Power

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    I thank Jeanne Theoharis for this insightful piece on what Julian Bond taught! These are lessons vital to understanding the Movement and vital to creating a more just world, for everyone. – Mark Higbee, Ypsilanti, Michigan

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    Julian came to new haven when i was in high school. For some reason I went to hear him and decided to attend Morehouse college. Only place I applied. Thank God for his power presence and priority. Great man who be oh so proud of another Morehouse man, Senator Warnock!! Great article, thanks for sharing.
    William C Robinson, Esq. Miami, Fla.

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    I ordered my copy from the publisher, and it arrived quickly. “Time to Teach” by Julian Bond is not only a beautiful book to look at, its writing is vivid and captivating; for me, a page turner. You will like it! I’m only about 6o pages in but it’s too good to set aside.

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