From the Archives: Julian Bond on Politics
Fifty-eight years ago this month, the Georgia legislature refused to seat newly elected state representative Julian Bond because of his stance against the war in Vietnam. Bond, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who would later become one of the co-founders of the Institute for Southern Studies and Southern Exposure magazine, fought the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967, two years later and after Bond had been elected a second time, the court ruled that Bond should be seated.
Ten years after he was first elected, Bond sat down for a long interview with Sue Thrasher (another Institute co-founder) and Bob Hall, the founding editor of Southern Exposure. The interview was published in a 1976 issue of Southern Exposure titled "Facing South" — an issue that would give its name to a syndicated newspaper column published by the Institute for Southern Studies and, many years later, to the online publication you're reading today.
In an excerpt from the interview republished below, Bond reflects on his decision to enter politics and on his life in the political arena.
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 US Constitution, but in the resulting legal battle, the US 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 twenty 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.
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 upon 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? Mv 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, “Poohpooh 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.
Southern Exposure: Speaking of Hubert Humphrey, how did you get involved in the challenge at the Democratic convention in 1968 that got you nominated for Vice-President?
Bond: Well, I got involved in the ‘68 convention really by happenstance. You know, one of the great critiques of my life is that fate at every step has opened the door and I have just stumbled through. What happened was two young white men, Parker Hudson and Taylor Branch, were interested in getting a single Eugene McCarthy delegate from Georgia elected to the Chicago convention. That's all. But they quickly found out all the delegates from Georgia were appointed by the state party chairman who was appointed by the governor, which meant Lester Maddox. There was no provision for citizen input at all. The AFL-CIO, which wanted delegates for Humphrey, was also unhappy with this, so together with the McCarthy people, they held a convention in Macon to choose a challenge delegation. I just drove down there with some friends, and the McCarthy people, who swept the convention from the Humphrey folks, asked me to be the chairman of the delegation. I had had no idea of going to the convention at all before that! So I agreed not to be the chairman, but the co-chairman with Rev. James Hooten of Savannah.
Well, a few of us went to Chicago to present our case to the credentials committee, you know, saying that we were more representative than the Maddox delegation from Georgia. I had gone to Chicago with no suitcase, thinking we would just tell the committee the facts and go back home and wait for the answer. But the credentials committee is not like a regular jury. They're not locked up at night; they go to cocktail parties, to caucuses, to meetings; you can get to them. So, it became clear we needed our whole delegation up there to lobby the committee. But we had no money, and the bulk of our delegates were really working-class, poor people from rural Georgia who couldn't afford to pay their way. So it fell upon me to raise the money. I finally got $3,000 from a source that I'm not at liberty to mention —but which would surprise the devil out of people if they knew — and went to Delta and bought their tickets and in 24 hours they were in Chicago. They in turn became lobbyists, hitting all the delegations because we knew even if we didn't have the votes to win in the credentials committee, we had a chance of being seated by a vote from the whole convention.
We never saw the white movement protesting outside because we, even more than most conventioneers, led a very sheltered existence. But it did quickly become evident to me that what was involved here was a vast civic lesson for America, that all the country was watching and that all of us were acting out the very basics in political science. Here we were turning out members of the regular Maddox delegation, many of whom were state legislators who had voted two years before to put me out of the state house because of the anti-war statement we made in SNCC. There's an old saying: “What goes around, comes around.” It sure does, in politics especially, every time. We were literally putting these guys out, sending them home.
Southern Exposure: Was your involvement and the involvement of other blacks inside the convention as consistent with the development of the black movement as the protests outside were consistent with the course of the white left?
Bond: Yes, it was an extension of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge in the 1964 Atlantic City convention. In fact, this was the convention in which the FDP was seated and recognized as being the official Mississippi delegation. And then, too, we were on the inside believing we had a very good chance to have a President made by people who are on the fringes of regular politics. To us, it was a tremendous demonstration of power. We were, one, challenging racism and this totalitarian scheme in Georgia; two, we, as a delegation of people who had been excluded all our lives, were coming into political power and prominence in Georgia; and three, we were electing the President of the US. What more could you ask?
I'll tell you something else. A great deal of the black movement's perspective about the street demonstrations were reflected in what Bobby Seale or somebody said, namely that black people knew the police in Chicago and in the big cities and wouldn't put themselves in a position of being beaten or worse. What happened was predictable.
Southern Exposure: Do you think the anti-war movement made a mistake by continuing to attack Humphrey after the convention without considering what the consequences would. be if they succeeded in knocking him off?
Bond: Well, I campaigned very hard for McCarthy, and I can understand the emotional investment people had in him. But when it became a contest between Humphrey and Nixon, I was urging people to vote Democratic. So overall I think it was a mistake not to see what would happen. Humphrey could have been President very easily in 1968, and I'm not making a campaign speech for him, but, you know, instead we had six years of Nixon —the country pushed to the right, the Supreme Court and on and on.
On the other hand, those of us in the challenge delegation made a mistake by not coming back to Georgia — and I have been rightly criticized about this —to begin an independent political organization which would be in operation by the next year for the governor's race. Instead, we pretty much went our own ways.
Southern Exposure: What about your own interest in a presidential campaign? Why do you want to be President?
Bond: Because as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It's a bully pulpit.” In other words, you have a chance to put your ideas and programs before the whole public, the Congress particularly, but the whole country. This goes for the campaign as well. If I ran, I wouldn't want to be just a black Eugene McCarthy or a black Bobby Kennedy. I think you've got to run a very different campaign, you've got to move much further to the left. It's got to be as black as you can make it without turning off the white electorate. You've got to talk about very serious economic changes. It's got to draw a vast number of people into a movement around basic issues of power, people who might be out there holding or waiting —like in the early movement—without even knowing it, waiting to be involved.
Southern Exposure: Do you really think America is ready for Julian Bond as President? I mean, it's been only ten years since you were blocked from taking your seat in the Georgia legislature, and ten years before that, you as President would have been hardly imaginable. Do you think social change happens that quick, that America has changed that much?
Bond: No, but I think it could have changed that much. I think we in the movement in the early ‘60s have missed several bets along the way. Among the greatest was the inability to sustain over a long period of time. Take the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi as a small example. The FDP is in disarray now; they have Democratic Party recognition as the loyalists, but little else because they weren't able to sustain. Mississippi is 40 percent black, but why haven't they been able to do better, to elect more blacks? It's not just because of the evil of white officialdom. The organizers on the scene and the support people back here didn't keep at it enough, didn't organize enough, didn't do as much as we could have. Now this is not just a problem of organization, but, more importantly, it is a problem of keeping people involved.
One thing SNCC did in those early days was provide a funnel through which the activist young person could pour himself or herself and come out at the bottom directed toward something they could become involved in, could become a part of. There's nothing like that, now; we've lost our ability to sustain that funnel. For SNCC, it broke down for external and internal reasons. The external reasons were beyond our control: our anti-war pronouncement in ‘65 and particularly the position taken on the Arab-Israeli war by a sector of SNCC in ‘66 or '67 eliminated our financial support, and the anti-war movement sucked away more money and support. At the same
time, we never created the national ongoing support structure that would sustain us over a period of years, which is a problem that other groups have. SCLC has always had it and the NAACP is having it now. So we weren't able to keep the funnel open. We narrowed its top and we narrowed its center and what came out the bottom ceased. People in their local communities were left to their own devices, unable to make the kind of national or regional connections they had once made. And some of them were—and are still—attracted to other mechanisms, from those with a certain romanticism like the Black Panther Party, which was, I hesitate to say, an illegitimate child of the civil rights movement, to groups that are really very disturbed and deranged. And they will continue to be attracted to them because they don't see any alternatives.
Southern Exposure: What do you advise people to do in order to recreate these funnels? Would the creation of a leftist third party provide the kind of mechanism needed to allow large numbers of people to participate in social change activities again?
Bond: Well, we need that, but that may not solve this problem of having funnels. I mean, there are some alternatives now for people to go into, but they are not known, that is, people don't know they can contribute anything to them or can become a part of them in some way that accommodates their other commitments, you know, like school or a job or a family. The organizations we do have have failed to propagandize themselves or somehow project themselves as a funnel that people can give something to, you know, not just financially, but can contribute their creative talents, whatever they may be, within a framework that gives them value. Take the Institute of the Black World, or the Institute for Southern Studies for that matter. Even if we had a third party right now—and there are plans to run a third party presidential campaign next year—what would the Institute for Southern Studies be doing to provide that funnel on a sustained basis? Well, I can see where it could be commissioning papers right now on certain subjects, not for party purposes because of the tax-exempt status, but analyses and model programs on conversion of military bases or allocation of natural resources or public ownership of public services and utilities or whatever, and these papers could then be used by a third party or by any candidate for that matter. There are scores of people in academia in the South who would be eager to do that, but I don't think they feel there's any structure they can do it in which would assign such work any real worth. You know, who would see it, who would publish it, who would use it? Well, that's just one thing the Institute and Southern Exposure could be doing to serve as a funnel, whether there is a third party or not.
Southern Exposure: If that's an example of where you think organizations should be headed, where do you think the movement in general, and the black movement in particular, is now?
Bond: In my view, it is a localized movement: the smaller the town, the more inclusive the organization running it may happen to be; the larger the town, the more fragmented it is, which isn't to say that organizations are working at cross purposes as much as that they don't work under any umbrella. It doesn't have any national cohesion and very little regional cohesion. But in small southern towns especially, I think it is a movement that focuses on those areas of power that I mentioned earlier, that we learned we had to move into, namely it is a political and economic movement. It's political in the sense that it's trying to create a black mercantile class of small businessmen, shopping center owners and so forth, and in that it's largely a movement oriented at winning existing jobs. Sadly enough, it's not a job-creating movement, which is an important mistake, I think. By that I mean if you go to Pascagoula, Mississippi, or Greenville, South Carolina, people are making demands on the ship builders or textile mills to share the existing jobs equitably. They want to integrate within the existing job structure, so it's not a movement that thinks about a reorganized economy or about alternative structures. Instead of competing with another guy who is out there looking for a job, the movement needs to point out that the way the economy is run now is too limited and we need to project an alternative way to run it. This gets back to what I think has been a continuing failure of the southern movement to do the kind of planning we were talking about with those commissioned studies. We have to look ahead five, ten years for a different way to finance the government and structure the economy.
Southern Exposure: Would you propose some kind of quasi-socialist or socialist control of American corporations?
Bond: Yes, I do that in my speeches, particularly for the expanding sector of the economy which is services. That's where the new jobs are going to be, so the question is whether it is privately controlled or part of the public sector. I say we should have local and national control of public services operated for need and not for profit and a free health system financed from the national treasury and not for the insurance companies, a redistribution of wealth through a tax structure that eliminates the disparity between the needy and the greedy, a national work force plan and so on.
Southern Exposure: Why do you think the media doesn't reflect the kind of radical beliefs and programs you advocate?
Bond: I'm not really sure. You know I go places and say things that I don't think many people are saying to audiences, but when I read the newspaper account of my speech something is lost. I was down in Austin, Texas, and talked about structural and economic changes and was using as a basis for my talk a platform of the California Democratic Socialist Party. But, you know, here's the news report and it's just not there. They give me this image and I don't know how to correct it.
Southern Exposure: You don't work to develop your image?
Bond: No. I just do, you know, go out and do.
Southern Exposure is a journal that was produced by the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South, from 1973 until 2011. It covered a broad range of political and cultural issues in the region, with a special emphasis on investigative journalism and oral history.