It’s always a shock when someone who is an eternal symbol of precocity dies, especially when it’s at a not entirely inappropriate age. To most Americans Julian Bond, who died on Saturday at 75, was a civil rights leader known for his wit and urbanity, and for long service to the great cause of his generation. To Georgians who remember the 1960s, he was the preeminent figure who united the civil rights and antiwar causes, and black and white progressives, and invariably made his enemies look foolish and small.
A quick personal anecdote: my best friend in high school had her purse stolen when we were in downtown Atlanta participating in an antiwar protest. What upset her most was not the loss of money or ID, but the Julian Bond autograph she carried around with her.
His national celebrity was attributable to two events: first, the refusal of the Georgia House of Representatives to seat him upon his election to the body in 1965, allegedly on grounds of his sympathetic comments about draft resisters. The Georgia House was forced to accept Bond by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, shortly before that chamber helped elect the ax-handle-wielding segregationist restauranteur Lester Maddox governor of the state.
But Bond’s second big national moment was even bigger: in the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, after he was seated as a delegate via a compromise with a slate chosen by Maddox, his name was placed into nomination for vice president by the McCarthy-supporting Wisconsin delegation.
During the vice presidential balloting won, of course, by the nominee Hubert Humprey’s choice Ed Muskie, Bond sheepishly withdrew his name on grounds that he was well short of the constitutional age for the office of 35.
Bond went on to serve for two decades in the Georgia legislature, which he left to pursue a seat in Congress in 1986. That led to the low point of his career, a bitter and unsuccessful campaign against his old SNCC colleague John Lewis. It’s likely that Lewis–who remains in the House nearly three decades after that campaign–was the only person who could have defeated Bond that year.
The two old friends soon reconciled, and Bond went on to become president of the NAACP for ten years. Throughout his later years, Bond became a familiar face on television talk shows, the college lecture circuit, and controversial topics. He was a very important figure in securing civil rights movement support for LGBT equality and marriage equality, and his final arrest at a protest occurred just over two years ago, when he joined a protest at the White House against the XL Keystone Pipeline.
We will miss his voice and his unflagging witness for peace and human dignity.