Civil rights activist Julian Bond, who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and served as chairman of the NAACP for 22 years, died on Saturday at the age of 75.
An icon of the civil rights movement, Bond’s work with SNCC was integral in helping to organize student protests, such as sit-ins, in the South during the 1960s. Later in life he served for 20 years in the Georgia State Assembly and was president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Northeastern University School of Law professor Margaret Burnham first met Bond while working for SNCC. He was also on the board of advisors of the law school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and narrated a documentary on the program’s work.
Here, Burnham reflects on Bond’s passion, influence, and humor.
How did you come to meet Bond and in what capacity did you two work together over the years?
Julian was a co-founder and director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. He worked in our Atlanta office and I worked in Jackson, Mississippi. We were a tight group, and Julian provided the humor, wisdom—and, as the son of well-respected academic leaders—the street cred to keep us at the sharp edge of a dynamic and fragile civil rights movement.
He readily responded when we asked him to participate in the CRRJ documentary. He respected our efforts to bring transitional justice home to the United States. Working with Julian was wonderful. His voice instantly tied our efforts to the long civil rights movement with which he and his forebears were associated for generations.
What was unique about his contributions to the civil rights movement?
Julian changed the image of the civil rights “leader.” Some leaders came out of the Southern church, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others came from the urban streets, like Malcolm X. Julian held fast to SNCC’s commitment to a non-hierarchical approach to building organizations, while at the same time opened the field for progressive black electoral politics by serving in the Georgia legislature. Indeed, Barack Obama is in some sense his legatee.
Many black progressives would have disdained the NAACP as too conservative, but when Julian took the helm he revived its radical history and made it a national force to be reckoned with. He understood that beltway politics was necessary, but not sufficient to advance racial issues.
And politically, he was ahead of the curve. As an NAACP leader he stepped out on LGBT issues and criticized homophobia within the black church and elsewhere.
What will you remember most about him?
For all his dignity and savvy, Julian could be funny as all get-out. He had this wry sense of humor that would rise up slowly and then leave you in stitches. And even if you hadn’t seen Julian in years, you could pick back up with him just where you left off. He was a generous man and a noble leader, and he will be deeply missed.