One of my keenest memories of Julian Bond is his voice. It had a beautiful tone, smooth and musical and soft. In the 1970s, when Julian was in the Georgia legislature, my mother was a top aide. I would drop by his Atlanta office now and then when home on break from college. The office was a boisterous, happy place, where phones rang constantly and constituents lined up for assistance. But when he sat down at a desk — any desk, there was no set location — to record his “Julian Bond at Large” radio spot, a sudden hush fell uncommanded across the room. Even the constituents stopped to listen. He always finished the recording in one take. Everyone would applaud.
Bond, who died last weekend at 75, was a towering figure in the civil-rights movement, a man of both conscience and controversy. He cut his political eyeteeth in the 1960s as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was a spellbinder and a firebrand, never reluctant to say exactly what he thought and to let the chips fall where they may.
My mother used to call him the brightest man in politics. Small wonder. Bond was raised in a fiercely intellectual black family of a sort that few Americans quite believe has ever existed. His paternal grandparents were both graduates of Oberlin at a time when hardly any black students attended college. His father, Horace Mann Bond, who earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago, was president of Lincoln University and a top official of the Rosenwald Fund. His uncle was president of the University of Liberia. In short, Julian came quite naturally by his soft but sure willingness to speak his mind.
He possessed a swift, incisive wit. In 1999, when the mayor of Washington, D.C., fired an aide for using the word “niggardly” (not etymologically related to the N-word), Bond was wry: “Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on this issue.” “If you can’t cut them off at the necks,” he once said of segregationist Democrats, “you can cut them off at the knees.”
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And because his fiery rhetoric so often had him in trouble, he was a First Amendment absolutist’s dream.
In 1970, for instance, he told a group of college students that he favored the overthrow of the U.S. government. Asked whether he meant violently or nonviolently, he answered, “It doesn’t matter.” That particular remark caused the Georgia legislature to try to kick him out.
They had tried before.
In 1965, when Bond was first elected, the Georgia legislature refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. His fellow legislators decided he was disloyal. They excluded him, therefore, on the ground that he could not conscientiously take the legislative oath to support and defend the Constitution.
The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where Georgia argued that it had the power to judge conscientiousness in order to “ensure the loyalty of its public servants by making the taking of an oath a qualification of office.” The justices unanimously rejected the argument. Keeping Bond out because of a disagreement with his views was no different than keeping him out because of a dislike of his color, wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. As long as a private citizen would be constitutionally protected in making the statements, so must a legislator be: “The interest of the public in hearing all sides of a public issue is hardly advanced by extending more protection to citizen critics than to legislators.”
Bond’s anti-war stance didn’t make him popular among African Americans, either. Black Atlanta at the time was as pro-war as white Atlanta. The black press excoriated him. Even Grace Towns Hamilton, a friend of his family and the most influential black politician in Georgia at the time, refused to support him.
But Bond often riled the black establishment that had birthed him. In 1969, the influential Jet magazine columnist Simeon Booker dismissed Bond’s supporters as “wayout political cats.” In 1971, Bond made enemies when he supported Sen. Harold Hughes, who was white, over Ambassador Patricia Harris, who was black, for credentials chair at the Democratic National Convention. Bond’s explanation? Harris, he said, “did not deserve the support of black people” because she was backed by “the forces determined to keep black people from participating” in the party’s raucous and divided 1968 convention.
And in the 1990s, looking back on a career spent fighting racism, Bond was able to articulate the downside of integration: “People who are poor who are living on the edge of poverty or who are living under poverty are tucked away someplace else. I don’t see them; they don’t see me; we don’t interact; we have no relation one to the other; no physical relation.”
He often criticized the black leadership for “shooting ourselves” rather than “direct[ing] our energies outward.” But that didn’t mean he shied from internal battle when he thought it necessary. In the 1990s, Julian condemned the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan, who fired back, “That’s a slave talking.”
Despite Bond’s fiery rhetoric, he believed in seeking allies among those on the other side. Even in 1965, campaigning in segregated Atlanta, he talked his way into the living rooms of white voters, few of whom supported him, seeking and occasionally finding common cause on economic issues, even though they would never agree on race.
The last time Julian and I crossed paths was a year and a half ago, when we were both on a panel at the Washington National Cathedral to discuss Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. I hadn’t seen him in years, but he had hardly changed at all. During the question-and-answer session, Bond vehemently attacked the black church for its opposition to same-sex marriage. His voice was as melodious as ever. Perhaps his language was needlessly harsh. Certainly he made some enemies that night in the audience. But that was very much who Julian Bond was: a man always moved by conscience, less worried about giving offense than saying what he considered the truth.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.
© 2015, Bloomberg News