Julian Bond: The meaning of the movement
Civil rights veteran Julian Bond, who died on Aug. 15, 2015, was one of the founders of the Institute for Southern Studies, and the Institute maintained a close relationship with Bond over the years. In 1975, Bob Hall and Sue Thrasher — who collaborated with Bond in the formative years of the Institute in the early 1970s — interviewed Bond for Southern Exposure magazine. The interview, an excerpted version of which appears below, offers a detailed, first-person account of Bond's entry into the 1960s civil rights struggle and his evolving views about the lessons and legacy of the movement.
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Julian Bond possesses a blend of poise and easy humor that is often associated with distinguished families who have assumed the responsibilities of community leadership. His father, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, was an astute historian of the black experience, and though he rarely received just recognition from white scholars, his studies are now praised as classics in the field. Julian was headed for a career as an intellectual leader himself, perhaps as a creative writer, when the storm of the civil rights movement swept him into political life.
Bond was 20 in 1960, when four students sat-in at the Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and triggered the mass entrance of black students into the movement. A few months later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed, and Bond began directing the organization's publicity work. In 1965, he gained national notoriety when the Georgia state house of representatives refused to let him take his newly-won seat in the assembly. The white majority claimed his endorsement of SNCC's anti-Vietnam statement amounted to a rejection of the U.S. Constitution, but in the resulting legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court finally upheld Bond's right to political office.
Bond now serves in the state senate and nationally is one of the strongest advocates of black political power. He has even announced that he would run for the presidency himself, if he could finance a campaign. Today, he regularly speaks to 20 different groups in a month, as a means both to support his wife and five children and to get his message out to a wider audience. Although the news media rarely gives his serious views full treatment, he consistently projects a radical alternative for America's economic and political organization. At the same time, and with typical nonchalance, he maintains a wry sense of humor, finding it hard, as he says, "to resist the opportunity for a little witticism when folks are feeling overly self-important."
This edited interview of Julian Bond's thoughts on the movement's development since the early 1960s was conducted in Atlanta in December 1975, by Bob Hall and Sue Thrasher.
Start at the beginning ...
Question: Let's start at the beginning. I'm interested in what you learned as a child from your father and others that had a bearing on your own development as a leader, what was passed from one generation of black leadership to another?
Julian Bond: Well, it was less my father or other people saying, “Here's what you've got to do,” than learning from the examples they set. For instance, I saw the way my father responded to pressures which came down on him — and in one case nearly crushed him. That was when he was president of Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pennsylvania, which was then a private black college, the oldest in the country, as a matter of fact. Anyway, the board of trustees decided they wanted to integrate the school. It had always had a few white students, just like any other black college, but they wanted to integrate even further. My father resisted that, and lost his job and had to come down to Atlanta and be dean of the School of Education at Atlanta University.
At the same time, a stream of people were in and out of our house, and we had a chance to watch them. I have a picture of myself and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier — I was just four years old — and it has the three of us in academic regalia. It was a half-serious, half-joking plot of my father's to consign me to a life of academic study.
And then there was Paul Robeson, who was somebody to emulate, you know, he is somebody who had a certain kind of life that is worth copying. And I saw Walter White, who was then the executive secretary of the NAACP, and learned that here is somebody who is in fact a professional civil rights worker, one of maybe 20 in the country. You see, at that time there was no "class" of people who were professional civil rights workers. Today there is, both from public and private life, if you call the affirmative action director of IBM a certain kind of civil rights worker — probably not very much of one. But in the early 1940s, this wasn't the case.
There was, however, a very strong sense that the educated black person had a responsibility of sharing his training and skills with others, with those less fortunate. If you were a scholar, you had a responsibility to study the black condition — as my father and Dr. Du Bois did. If you were a doctor, it was more than just treating sick people, but having concern for the race as a class, as a group.
Then, again, I was raised in a home that was full of books about Africa and the South and Black America, and those were topics of conversation all the time. And it was a home full of black newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro-American, as well as the New York Times and so forth.
I remember my impression of the South when we moved to Atlanta from Lincoln in 1957 was formed largely by those black newspapers which at the time were often sensationalist. Whenever anything particularly vicious took place in the South it was front page news in the black press for weeks. I can remember one incident of a guy who was a Korean veteran being beaten blind in a bus station in some Virginia or North Carolina city. And I thought those kinds of things happened daily, and that you were literally taking your life in your hands to walk into downtown Atlanta.
But, on the other hand, it was only when I went to Atlanta that I discovered for the first time that this group of black doctors and lawyers and writers and, really, largely academic types, had a national character to it — a whole community of people separated by professions. So when I entered Morehouse [part of the Atlanta University complex] I found that I would know people because if your father teaches at Tuskegee and somebody else's father taught at Fisk and somebody else's at Albany State, then you all knew each other.
Southern Exposure: But part of recognizing that you belonged to this middle-class, professional network was the realization that others didn't belong to it?
Bond: Oh, yes, very much so. I'll tell you one thing that shocked me. When I came to Morehouse, I had a great facility for testing. I had taken the college boards twice, and I bet that I scored higher on the college boards and entrance tests than any other freshman at Morehouse. But by the end of the year, I had come down to about the middle third of the class. What had happened was that these young men — some of them early admission students, 15 and 16 years old, who had interrupted their high school education to pick cotton or peaches, and for whom education was the most precious thing in the world — these guys would study all night, after coming back from work somewhere as waiters, sleep for an hour, go to class, go back to work. They were not your classic grind, but were well-rounded people, very attractive and very much interested in upward mobility.
Southern Exposure: When the civil rights movement started, which class background did the student leaders come from?
Bond: Well, I'm not sure. The person who involved me in the movement was Lonnie King, who had entered Morehouse from high school, was not from middle-class origins at all, had left Morehouse and gone into the Navy, and had come back to be older than the average student — but was very much the big man on campus, a football hero. We were just running out of Korean veterans — this was 1959. Then there was Ben Brown, whose father had been an embalmer and had a job then working as a laborer. Charlie Jones' mother was a professor at Johnson C. Smith and had a Ph.D., and Charles Sherrod was a student at Virginia Union and I think was raised by a mother who was a maid. Even if they came from exact opposite backgrounds, they were all in college. They all had entered the middle class. College at that time was almost a guarantor of a job, and it was a tremendous step toward upward mobility.
Southern Exposure: So the college students were enough inside the middle-class values, the aspirations of what America should give them, to see the contradictions, the limitations, as unjust?
Bond: Well, many people saw them earlier. Take John Lewis, for example. He saw them when he was in high school. John was riding a bus into Montgomery from Troy — quite a distance — to go to the mass meetings the boycott started in 1955. He went to see Rev. Shuttlesworth and Dr. King in Montgomery to get their help so he could file suit to integrate the schools in Pike County, and I think they discouraged him because they thought he'd be killed. So some of these people were active in their high school NAACPs, and when they got to college, they were almost in place holding, and they probably didn't know they were waiting, but they were poised and ready to jump in.
When the Greensboro sit-ins happened in early 1960, that was it. It wasn't that much of a conscious decision of what to do. Greensboro became the model, almost a blueprint. You didn't say, “Why did they go to Woolworths?” You thought, “Gee, we got one right here.” And you didn't say, “Why were they nonviolent?” There was no choice; they would have been killed, or beaten severely, so that was the best thing to do.
It also put pressure on the white community, you know. You held up a standard of decency and goodness and honesty, and your opponents were so obviously evil. The moral aspect, of course, was very strong because so many of these people were pre-ministerial students — Sherrod, Charlie Jones, John Lewis and on and on.
Joining the Movement
Southern Exposure: How did the news from Greensboro come to Atlanta? What did the Atlanta University students do?
Bond: I was sitting in the Yates and Milton Drugstore on Feb. 3, 1960, and Lonnie King, who I only knew as a football hero, a "big man on campus," came up to me with this Atlanta Daily World that said something like "Greensboro Students Sit In for Third Day." And he said, “What do you think of this?” And I said, "Well, I've read about it." And he said, "Don't you think somebody ought to do it here?" And I said, "Well, somebody probably will." And he said, "Let's us do it." And I wanted to say, "What do you mean, us?" You know, "Why me?" He said, "You take this side of the drugstore, and I'll take the other, and get everybody here to come to a meeting at noon." And we did it, and that's how it began.
We formed a committee and went to see the presidents of the Atlanta University colleges, and particularly Dr. Clements, the AU president, who told us that the AU Center had always been different from all other black schools in the country and that it wasn't sufficient just for us to sit-in. I think they were trying to buy some time. They said no one will understand what you are doing. Of course people would understand, but we said, "Yes, you're right, no one will understand why we are sitting-in."
So they encouraged us to issue a statement of principles, and we did. The students wrote it, and called it an Appeal for Human Rights, and it listed a dozen or more things that we thought were wrong. We got the money — with the help of some adults — to put the Appeal in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with the signatures of the student body presidents of the AU schools, and it concluded by saying, "We pledge our hearts and minds to do whatever is necessary" — which were strong words then — "to see that these rights are granted us." Of course, that caused quite a little storm. I remember that Gov. Carl Sanders said the thing sounded like it was written in Moscow, if not Peking. But, you know, Atlanta had this concept of itself as a "City Too Busy to Hate" and Mayor Hartsfield, who coined that phrase, said, "Of course this is not written in Moscow or Peking; this was written by our own students whose demands are entirely legitimate." This was before any action at all.
The following week, Lonnie King and myself and another person went downtown to survey our lunch counters. We really made the store people nervous with our yellow pads and pencils, saying things like, "Let's see, there are 15 people at this counter." The store detectives would just about faint; they knew something was happening.
On March 15, 1960, we went to every dime store in town, to the bus station and to the cafeterias at the federal building, the state capital and the city hall. We purposely picked three different kinds of targets. I was the leader of the group that went to the city hall cafeteria. And it had a big sign outside saying “City Hall Cafeteria: Public Is Welcome,” apparently because there wasn't enough business just in city hall. But that only meant whites, not even black city employees.
Well, we went in, and the woman in charge called the police — it was all pretty straight-forward, not as vicious as in other cities at the time — and they packed us in the paddy wagon and took us to the old jail. I had told the group we would be in jail only an hour, but the hours ticked by, and they began saying, "What's happening, Bond? You told us we would only be in here an hour. I've got a class this afternoon." It wasn't until six that evening that we got everybody out. I remember we all went to Paschal's for dinner. It was a real celebration.
Of course, it was a surprise to most the community, including Dr. Clements, who we thought was trying to slow us down. We had some adults helping us; they bonded us out, and later, when the grand jury indicted us on charges of conspiracy and restraint of trade, with possible maximum sentences of something like 99 years, the adults worked out a deal and kept getting the trial delayed indefinitely. But it was mostly just us students in this Committee on Appeal for Human Rights.
We decided next to engage in hit-and-run sit-ins, to sit-in a place until just before the police came and leave and not be arrested. The stores then began to adopt a policy of closing down the lunch counters periodically.
Well, we finally stopped messing around with these Woolworths and Grants and so on. They were taking their orders from New York, and while there were people picketing Woolworths in probably a hundred Southern cities, we felt we weren't going to change much by focusing on them in Atlanta. It was out of our hands. So we decided to go after the giant in Atlanta, which was Rich's; it was the largest department store in the city and it was locally owned. Everybody went the way Rich's went, and we found out very early that Rich's was vulnerable.
We had had a meeting with Richard Rich down at the police station — Police Chief Jenkins, Lonnie King, Richard Rich, myself, and probably Mary Ann Smith or Hershel Sullivan. And Rich tried to tell us, "Why y'all picking on me? I give $500 every year to the United Negro College Fund." He was very worried, and we knew we had him, so we kept pushing him and pushing him.
We put up a picket line around his store —which was right downtown where all the buses came —and started collecting credit cards from the community and started boycotting him. His trade just went down, down, down. You could read it in the Constitution every Sunday morning from the Federal Reserve reports: retail sales in Atlanta down for the fifth week. We kept a picket line up around the store, mostly with students, but I remember one time we had a picket around the whole downtown area, 1,400 or so people, from the housing projects and campus.
We had two-way radios; we had a succession of volunteer cars coming every day; we had women from the community who brought food in at lunch time for the picketers. We had heavy football jackets from the athletic department at Morehouse for the girls to protect them from blow guns and spit. And we had all-weather, laminated picket signs. It was quite an operation. Those were really fantastic times for all of us.
We — the students — were doing most of the work, but the whole community was pulled in. And it revealed to us many of the splits within the black establishment and the movement. We finally got Dr. King to go down to Rich's and get arrested. We went to him and said, "You're not doing anything; come and get with us. You're from Atlanta and these are Atlanta students from your alma mater."
King really didn't have much of an organization at all then. SCLC was just a few people. But when he moved back to Atlanta from Montgomery, after the bus boycott, he was viewed as a threat by many of the adult leaders. This is a very, very tight town, and they were interested in political power, electoral power, which King was not concerned about at that time. He had a national agenda and they were afraid he would hurt their local interest in political power.
You see, this was about the time Q. V. Williamson had been picked to be the single black candidate for the board of aldermen of Atlanta in a deal with the white power structure. At that time, we were a minority vote, but a very disciplined vote. It was disciplined by the Atlanta Negro Voters League, which on election eve would pass out a ticket printed on bank-note paper that couldn't possibly be imitated or duplicated. This was the ticket; there was no other. Now you can stand up at the poll and get 20 of them. And actually, it was fairly democratically done then; these were endorsements by people you knew, with their names on the bottom, the ward leaders and party chairmen. Candidates went before the League and got their endorsement, but they couldn't buy the ticket like they can now.
Anyway, we got Dr. King involved in the boycott and other groups came in, and finally we began negotiations with Ivan Allen, who was then president of the Chamber of Commerce, and other whites on one side and some students and more adults on the other. We finally got an agreement which was a terrible agreement. It said, first, that the boycott would stop, and secondly, that the stores would integrate on a timetable of their own choosing, and thirdly, that if there was any violence over the integration of the public schools, which was going on then, they wouldn't integrate the stores at all.
We held a mass meeting across the street from Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to announce the agreement, and on the platform were Lonnie and Hershel Sullivan and Daddy King Sr., and a couple other adult leaders and Martin Luther King Jr. The crowd was incensed, bitterly angry with the agreement. They repudiated Lonnie, repudiated Hershel, and almost had them in tears. I remember one woman in a nurse's uniform storming down through the crowd saying, "I didn't give up shopping at Rich's for a year for this!" They called Daddy King an Uncle Tom, and I don't think he had ever been called that before.
But then Martin made a speech, and I have never heard such a masterful speech. It was on leadership, and it said, in effect, you have to trust your leaders even when they don't do what you think they ought to. He really played the audience like a violin; he lifted them up and let them down, lifted them up and let them down, lifted them up and let them down, and the last time he was through — and the stores did integrate on a fairly regular schedule.
I remember the day Rich's integrated. They wanted us to send testing teams, and so the word went out, and some matrons in the community who had never lifted a finger to help us wanted to be among the first. So they went down to integrate Rich's wearing furs and hats and so on — I mean, just to go eat lunch.
'I was the publicity guy'
Southern Exposure: What were you doing during this period, from the spring of 1960 into the summer and fall?
Bond: I was the publicity guy, sending out press releases all over the country to the black press and keeping in touch with local offices of the national press: Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and Washington Post. I became the publicist almost immediately because I was interested in writing and could write a press release that other people could understand. I had been active in a literary magazine at Morehouse, and Lonnie probably volunteered me from the beginning to be the press person. And I enjoyed that very much.
Then in the summer, when the students left, we moved from sitting-in at lunch counters to picketing job targets. One of the main ones was the A&P on the corner at Hunter and Ashby. You know, here is this almost all-black A&P, but it had only one black employee, a bag boy.
We started our picket, but we didn't have the community support that we needed because there was no information about what we were doing reaching people. We knew they would support us, if they just knew what we were doing. It turned out the A&P was one of the biggest advertisers in the Atlanta World, so they put pressure on the World and the World began to attack us. They had always been very conservative, but this was the final straw; we knew we needed our own media.
So we started publishing a newsletter every Saturday night and every Sunday we would go out and distribute thousands of copies at churches, and it really caught on. We had news of what was happening with us — "the boycott is in its third week." And I was hot on those Federal Reserve numbers, you know, to show we were winning. Then there was other news; I wrote most of it myself. Then a group of liberal businessmen who were also discontented with the World, but who wanted a black medium too, approached us and asked us to help start a new regular newspaper. So we left our newsletter and I went to work for the Inquirer.
Southern Exposure: What about the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), your role in that and its relation to Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)?
Bond: Well, I left the Inquirer to go work in the SNCC office full-time. SNCC had been formed in April 1960, at a conference in Raleigh called by SCLC, or really by Ella Baker as her last act before leaving SCLC. It was that same spring following the Greensboro sit-ins, when there were boycotts and picketing and sit-ins in towns all over the South.
So the conference brought together all these students— maybe 500 of them—with observers from the North and organizations like the National Student Association and civil rights organizations like NAACP, CORE, SCLC. Everybody wanted us to be their youth affiliate; they were all lobbying us.
But at that time, we were suspicious of them all, including Dr. King since he hadn't sat-in anywhere then. Sitting-in was the test — and also what everybody was talking about, trading brutality stories. We decided we didn't need these older people telling us what to do or capitalizing on what we did, so we formed an independent, temporary Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee to be just that — "coordinating of students" — and to plan another conference for October of that year in Atlanta to make a permanent SNCC.
So by the middle of 1960, SNCC had an office here in Atlanta which Jane Stembridge first ran, then Ed King, then James Forman. Forman came by the end of '60 because SNCC began putting paid people in the field and we needed somebody with very good organizational abilities to head up the Atlanta office and keep a supply line going into the field. When he got here, he looked through the files and saw that I had done publicity work for the local Committee, so he called me up and asked me to do the same work for SNCC.
I dropped out of Morehouse altogether in January 1961 — and didn't go back to graduate until 1971 — and gave up the newspaper work. There were four of us in the office then: Forman, Norma Collins, myself and John Hardy, who got brutally beaten in Walthall County, Mississippi, and who loved to dance in the office. And we had a tiny office down on Auburn Avenue — not too far from SCLC.
I can remember Forman and I going into the bank to deposit $2 or $5, and seeing Wyatt Tee Walker, who replaced Ella Baker as head of SCLC, in his pressed blue jeans depositing sacks of checks. It was irritating as the devil because we knew we were the people doing things. King was going around making speeches, but that was it; they didn't have anybody in the field hardly. But they were getting all this dough, much of it, I'm sure, marked "To Southern Students, c/o Dr. Martin Luther King." The Southern civil rights movement was just known as SCLC. Of course, that quickly changed with my marvelous press work! Also, we finally got King to agreed to give us a subsidy of about $500 a month, I think. Forman arranged that personally with King.
Learning Lessons of the Movement
Southern Exposure: The period from 1960 through 1964 while SNCC was at its heyday was a time of tremendous movement and activity for a great number of young people — kids, really. Can you sum up some of the changes that people went through and some of the lessons that were learned about how power works?
Bond: Well, the first lesson we learned was that the early naivete of the movement was just that: naivete. We were operating on the theory that here was a problem, you expose it to the world, the world says "How horrible!" and moves to correct it.
Now that worked in certain situations, like a lunch counter or the horror of police brutality in Birmingham in '63. People were shocked and did say, "My God, let's do something about it." We thought there was even a hidden reservoir of support among white Southerners which was largely fed by our positive inter-racial contacts with white Southern students. And we thought that the Kennedy administration was on our side and that, again, all you had to do was put your case before them and they would straighten out what was wrong. Or all you had to do was register voters, turn them out on election day and snap, everything would be taken care of: streets would be paved, jobs provided, houses built, facilities integrated.
But gradually we learned different. We saw from working in the rural South who our friends really were, and it wasn't the parents of these white students or the Americans for Democratic Action, but it was people like the National Lawyers Guild whom others had told us not to work with because they were communists or radicals. I remember especially when Kennedy was killed, we had these tremendous discussions over what this meant for us: "Who is this guy Johnson?"
So we began looking over the longer haul and realizing we were talking about upsetting much more deeply ingrained institutional economic arrangements which were, first, difficult to dramatize, if their daily reality wasn't drama enough, and second, difficult to get people of privilege to care about changing. Therefore, we were forced to think about amassing a power of a different kind than that derived from moral suasion.
And to the movement in the South, there were only limited alternatives. One was political power, which the movement really got into heavily in 1964 with the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi, and from then on with the developing of independent political power, which meant moving away from mass marches to a different kind of organizing. Second was independent economic power, by which I don't mean the ability of blacks to become millionaires, but their ability to control their own economic resources, to build some independent economic structure.
Now these lessons were learned very gradually in the early 1960s and after some disappointments. And they were learned mostly from discussions with each other. Of course, within SNCC there were various differences of opinion which came out particularly in the '64 Mississippi Summer and when economic issues were raised and the Vietnam War began to be raised.
I can remember that the war was first raised by the students from Howard University who were generally the most sophisticated politically of all of us, were heavily influenced by Bayard Rustin, and were coming from Washington where you are much more likely to be involved in discussions of foreign policy.
Well, to many of us from the South, the Howard people were sort of New York sharpies, you know, Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox and later Charlie Cobb; and we weren't thinking about the war much at all. I had gone down and taken my physical and been declared unfit for military service because of my arrest record for demonstrating. But gradually, we began dealing with it more seriously, both because northern college campuses where we were going to raise money were asking about our position on the war, and more importantly, because we saw our staff members being disproportionately drafted, selectively drafted. It became a personal thing.
It was finally precipitated in December of 1965 with the shooting of Sammy Younge, who was a veteran. So, you know, we learned that lesson, that even if you were a veteran, they would shoot you down if you worked for civil rights in America. We drew up an anti-war statement for the press which made all these parallels between what we were doing and what the Vietnamese were doing, and our opposition, you know, both calling us "outside infiltrators and agitators." We were the American NLF, guerrilla warriors — which, of course, is a long way from thinking the government is on your side.
There were other things we learned as the years wore on. For one, we began to realize that our broad brush approach wasn't going to solve the complex problems we were coming up against. What was needed was more of a specialist approach to work on specific parts of the problem. Two things helped this development. One was the evolving of people's individual interests. You know, you might have five or six people living and working together in a small town, literally thrown together, and while their day was incredibly busy, 18 hours a day, and quite often under tremendous danger, one of them would think of something new that needed to be done. Somebody would say, "Here's a real need we're not meeting," and begin to fill it.
The other thing that happened was that the poverty program created these little special interest projects, a consumer co-op in a town in Mississippi, a day-care center in Alabama, and created this group of people (really almost a bureaucracy) tied to the notion that you had to focus on something. You couldn't continue to, as we used to say in the very early days, have a card which said "Have Nonviolence, Will Travel." Today, there are a whole group of people who have come out of the movement, who are no longer the SNCC generalists, but who have taken the movement into their life's work through concentrating in one area.
One other thing that goes with this that I guess we learned was that you had to construct your own alternatives. On the one hand, you held out a vision of what society ought to be, and at the same time, you tried to construct a working model of one aspect of what it could be.
The day-care example is instructive. We didn't just make the demand for federally subsidized day-care, which is what should happen; we went out and set up a day-care center in the town. And while we were constructing this model, we were learning to do it ourselves; we were providing a service to people who needed it; we are instructing children in a different way than they would get at home; and so on. Now that did not happen in my view as often as it should have, but it did happen in many towns around the South and the country, and many of the people who did it had been leading marches or registering voters two or three years before.
From Protest to Politics
Southern Exposure: Did your own interest push you in the direction of the electoral arena? Were you energetically moving to become a candidate in 1965?
Bond: I didn't move at all energetically. What happened was that the opportunity came for the first time since Reconstruction for Georgia to elect black candidates to the state House of Representatives. (There were already two state senators.) A new district was created, which meant no incumbents were running, and that meant SNCC people who had been promoting political participation in the rural South had to come to grips with the question of politics in the urban South and with thinking in terms of Democrats and Republicans seriously.
This chance just presented itself for us to win a seat in the state house. And it turned out I was the only person from SNCC who lived in the district. Now this was an important difference between me and other people who were out-of-towners, who had left their homes to go to another city, some of them at age 17 or even younger, and for whom their civil rights work was everything.
I was at home in Atlanta, and had maintained, you know, contact with people in the larger community, so this work was not a real interruption or discontinuity in my life; I wasn't out of place. People knew me not only from my publicity work for SNCC, but from the picket line at the A&P back in the summer of 1960 and from the voter registration campaign at Egan Homes and University Homes the next summer, so I could campaign with that history, you know: "Remember that picket line that we did and now there are black people working there."
I had really not given any thought to running for office, but when this chance arose a friend of mine who was active in Republican Party politics asked me to run as a Republican, and then another friend asked me to run as a Democrat. Well, I began to think there must be something to this, and asked myself did I want to be a candidate of the party headed by Barry Goldwater or of what we referred to as "the party of Kennedy." So I became a Democratic candidate, and the three people who helped me the most were, of course, all from SNCC: Judy Richardson, Charlie Cobb and Ivanhoe Donaldson.
A tremendous amount of scorn was heaped upon us from our colleagues in SNCC because we wore neckties while campaigning and because we didn't construct an independent candidacy. Our immediate answer was that we didn't want to get into arguments with people about our clothes and that the law in Georgia was so rigid that an independent candidacy was next to impossible, given our time limitations. On the whole, most SNCC people were very supportive; people would pass through town and spend a day canvassing and knocking on doors. We put in a great deal of work and won without much serious opposition.
Southern Exposure: What did you think political office meant?
Bond: At the time, I thought the people in the General Assembly were unrelenting racists, to a man, and, in fact, some are and some aren't. I thought also that there would be this tremendous ideological debate in the Assembly, but in fact, even when the issues are class issues, they are rarely discussed in those terms; more often, it's a question of dollars and cents.
And then, I think I had a rather idealized view of "total democracy," that I would find some way to ask my constituents how I should vote on every single measure. But I have since concluded that it is not possible or practical because I am called up to vote 40 times a day. The decision is ultimately mine. I now take the Edmund Burke view that your representative owes you not just his loyalty but his conscience and if he sacrifices either, then he sacrifices his right to represent you. My conscience is what ultimately tells me to vote yea or nay on a question, but every two years a referendum is held in my district over how well I do, over my manner of behavior in the legislature.
You know the debate between the community-based political activists and the electoral activists over who's responsible to whom? My thesis is that unlike almost every other leadership segment in the black community, elected officials alone have a responsibility that is re-enforced on a regular basis. I have a two-year option with the people I serve, and they either renew it or not every two years.
But the large bulk of community activists tend to be self-appointed and cannot identify their constituents readily, who they are and exactly what their interest is. It may sound like a bicentennial speech, but I really believe that this political office is a sacred trust. People have gotten together and made a choice and entrusted me with their lives in a certain sense. I'm their representative. That's serious business. You can't fool around with people's trust.
Now, in addition to my strict role as a legislator — which is something I had to learn over a period of time, how the legislature works — I also have to be someone people can call upon for help, not just a symbol of someone black in the legislature, but actually serving as sort of an ombudsman between people and their government, helping them get their social security check or whatever it might be they call me about — and usually it is not even a matter of the state, but of the city or federal government. That's why this office here in the district is necessary. Normally, I wouldn't need it.
Of course, sometimes I can't help at all. A woman called me yesterday and said her boyfriend wanted to be a black leader and she wanted me to interview him to see if he could make it. I had to tell her I wasn't on the screening committee. (Laughs)
Southern Exposure: What do you say to people who say the whole arena of electoral politics is irrelevant or a cop-out?
Bond (still laughing): I say, "Pooh-pooh to you." I say, "That's not true." I agree that if you think that registering to vote and electing decent people is sufficient by itself, then you are naive — but I do think that it's very, very important. What I think has happened is that the people who say it doesn't make any difference at all have simply righteously rejected the rhetoric of the people who say it makes all the difference in the world. There is a middle point.
It clearly does make a difference who the president or Congress is. Just think in terms of social services or the number of people who could have jobs in this country. If Hubert Humphrey, as a bad example, were president today instead of Gerald Ford, I think things would be much better for poor people in the United States. That's not to say we'd have full employment or a completely equal distribution of resources, but simply that elections do make a difference, a very important difference.
Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.