Saluting Julian Bond, Civil Rights Icon

The Washington Post
The Washington Post

If ever there was a man for all seasons, Julian Bond certainly fits the bill — a man whose college-student activism challenged the lie of "separate but equal" all over the South and particularly in his home state of Georgia. He went on to serve four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives and six in the Georgia Senate. Among other things, Julian also served four terms on the national board of the NAACP and was its chairman from 1998 to 2010.


Now the University of Virginia, located in a South that Julian helped change, is set to establish the H. Julian Bond Professorship of Civil Rights and Social Justice. There will be a celebration of Julian's many gifts and good works and a fundraiser for the chair on May 2 at New York's Plaza Hotel, where I will recall some of the seasons of Julian's life that inspired so many, including myself.

What amazes me about Julian is that he is the same Julian today as he was back when I first knew him as a soft-spoken, baby-faced college student. His innocent facade was betrayed by the wicked twinkle in his eye and the searing certainty of his pen during the heady days of the Atlanta Student Movement, when he was not only one of its leaders but also its poet and scribe.

Three Friends Just Driving Through

Even before the movement in Atlanta started in 1960, Julian, Carolyn Long and Ben Brown had the fire within to get what should have been rightfully theirs. Initially it was about a hamburger.

The three college students had gone to a busy "whites-only," pre-McDonald's drive-through in Atlanta known as the Yellow Jacket — not to make a statement, but simply because they were hungry. At the same time, they knew that American blacks would not be served, so displaying some of the creativity that they later employed during their days challenging the lie of "separate but equal," they posed as foreigners. (Foreign blacks had more entrée than those who were homegrown.)

They rummaged around in the trunk of Carolyn's father's car, knowing that as a traveling umpire, he had something in his packed bag that they could use. They fished out enough underwear to make turbans. They then wrapped their heads in the underwear and drove into the Yellow Jacket and attempted to order — in French.


But on that occasion, the one black carhop recognized them as locals. Undoubtedly worried as much about his own job as he might have been about the three hungry black students, he told them in no uncertain terms, as Carolyn still remembers it word for word, "You'd better get the hell outta there before your black [blankety-blanks] get arrested." (Substitute a five-letter word beginning with "a" for "blankety-blanks.")

It was probably one of the last times such a warning would be heeded by that group. For soon after the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins that lit the fire igniting the civil rights movement in 1960, Julian and friends like Carolyn and Ben decided that their time had come, too.


In no time, Julian made contact with other students from around the South, eventually creating the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which provided the "shock troops" of the movement. Heeding the advice of Ella Baker, an older civil rights pioneer, Julian set about creating a movement that was about more than a hamburger.

The Eye of the Storm

Given the kind of upbringing they had in race-proud black families, and educated in the renowned historic hub of black higher education known as the Atlanta University Center, the students cockily set about creating what they determined would be the best-organized protest movement to date. They pretty much got it right.


With Julian as one of the chief strategists and scribes, they did their research, polling students in the area about what they saw as the major inequities in Atlanta. They organized the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights and drafted a paper that contained a list of demands calling on "the white power structure," as it was known, to meet forthwith. They not only had demands but also dramatized them in unprecedented action in the streets, with the so-called white power structure conceding nothing.

Julian sat at the nerve center of the movement, strategizing, deploying and keeping up with the hundreds of college students who filed out of their classrooms and took to the streets, getting arrested by the dozens. Julian was a quiet but firm leader, and almost always with that deceptive twinkle in his eye. He relished the good fight and never shrank from the myriad challenges it presented, including getting arrested. While there were times when the young warriors knocked heads among themselves, Julian was the (mostly) calm at the center of the storm.


When the white newspapers only halfheartedly covered the burgeoning movement, and the one black newspaper was cowed by its white advertisers into ignoring the protests, Julian was among a small group to start a muckraking newspaper called the Atlanta Inquirer. It was published in the basement of M. Carl Holman, one of Clark College's English professors and an activist. Julian was one of a handful of young men and women who made up the motley crew the paper called a staff.

Julian, who left Morehouse to devote himself full time to the paper and the movement, had his work cut out for him. Students who protested in the morning, got arrested by noon and bailed out in the afternoon would then make their way to Holman's basement. There, they would recount their experiences to Julian, who would write them up for the paper.


In time the Inquirer also expanded its mission to expose even more of the lie of "separate but equal" in places other than lunch counters: in the schools and hospitals; in the substandard housing, especially the projects; and in many other places. As a student fighting my own battles at the University of Georgia, I joined them whenever I could, in a collaboration that would put a stamp on my consciousness as a journalist for the rest of my days. It was during these times that Julian also became a key player in SNCC as the organization's communication director and editor of its newsletter, the Student Voice.

Dangerous Times — and Time for Fun

Make no mistake: This was a tough and dangerous time for anyone involved in the movement, no matter their role. The Ku Klux Klan marched threateningly against the students when they picketed downtown department stores. A white racist who later became governor went after them with an ax.


Moreover, despite their commitment to going to jail without bail until freedom rang, jail for these otherwise sheltered students was a frightening experience. They were thrown into cold cells without blankets and with prisoners who ranged from prostitutes and thieves to murderers (who were nonetheless won over by their young cell mates). But what sustained the students was not only their own commitment to end Jim Crow; it was also colleagues like Julian, who instinctively understood that there needed to be "time-outs" as well as "time-ins."

To that end, the students often gathered in each other's home to relieve the stress they were all under by way of a "pah-tee." There may have been others who could boogie down better than Julian, but scribe and poet that he was, he sho nuff had some rhythm — as you can see in this poem he wrote during one of those "pah-tees":

See that girl shake that thing,
We can't all be Martin Luther King.

I had left Atlanta by the time Julian moved into the Georgia Legislature after being denied his seat more than once over his principled stance against the Vietnam War. I had begun to realize my dream of becoming the black Brenda Starr at the New Yorker. And in 1967, when I learned that my old friend Julian was coming to speak at an event in New York, I quickly secured the assignment and found him at the hotel where he was speaking and interviewed him about this new season of his life.


He was, as usual, low-key, but his passion was as high as always as he talked about the next phase of the civil rights movement. While he had written that we couldn't all be Martin Luther King, he nevertheless powerfully echoed Dr. King's message against the war and for ongoing engagement and struggle with what he told me then: "Negroes must not forget race consciousness as long as they are victims of racism."

Then he dipped back into history to remind that audience of the early Negro activists whose heritage of dissent helped create this country.


Fast-forward to Wednesday night at the Plaza, when Julian Bond — my friend, my colleague, my role model and inspiration — is rightfully honored as one whose heritage of dissent helped move this country closer to fulfilling its promise of freedom, justice and equality for all. He is truly one of the giants on whose shoulders our first black president has acknowledged that he stands, as do so many of us. Thank you, Julian.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Julian Bond became friends during the Atlanta sit-in movement, after she desegregated the University of Georgia in 1961.