When the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the early 1960s, Julian Bond emerged as one of its most visible champions. As the handsome, charismatic spokesperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Bond deftly drew widespread media attention to his fellow activists’ efforts to combat segregation across the South, and the discrimination and violence that often met these efforts. A state congressman and senator in Georgia for some two decades, he founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization, and led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its chairman for a decade—all while building a distinguished career as a lecturer, commentator, professor, essayist and poet.
Born Horace Julian Bond in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1940, he moved to Pennsylvania with his family at the age of 5, when his father, Horace Bond, became the first African-American president of Lincoln University. When Julian was 17, the family returned to the South, where Horace worked as dean of education at Atlanta University. As a student at Morehouse College, Julian founded a literary magazine called The Pegasus, but his studies would soon take a backseat to his growing political activism.
In 1960, Bond became one of the original leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which took a more aggressive approach to the nonviolent resistance tactics practiced by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In contrast to many of his fellow SNCC activists, Bond was arrested only once, when he led a sit-in at the segregated cafeteria at Atlanta’s City Hall in 1960. He dropped out of college the following year to devote his energies to the civil rights movement, but would return in the 1970s and complete his English degree.
Bond left SNCC (as did its chairman, John Lewis) in the mid-‘60s, after black power advocates took over its leadership, forcing whites from the organization. In 1965, he became one of eight black men to win election to the Georgia House of Representatives, integrating that body for the first time since Reconstruction. White members of the House refused to let Bond take his seat, citing his leadership of SNCC’s resistance to the Vietnam War as evidence of disloyalty. (Though as Bond said in a 2006 interview with Reuters: “I strongly suspect that my race was also a reason.”) The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a unanimous decision ordered the state legislature to seat Bond, declaring his freedom of speech had been denied. He would serve in the Georgia General Assembly for the next 20 years, including four terms in the House and six in the Senate.
At the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, months after King’s assassination, Bond became the first African American to be nominated as a candidate for vice president. He had to withdraw his name from contention, however, as he was seven years younger than the minimum age requirement mandated by the Constitution. Bond left his post in state government in 1986 to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, losing a contentious race to his former SNCC colleague, John Lewis. Though the two men were old friends, their differences were hard to ignore: As the son of a sharecropper (Lewis) and the son of a college president (Bond), they represented two very different sides of the black experience in the South.
In the years following the race, Bond and Lewis were able to put the past behind them and renew their friendship. Upon learning of Bond’s death, Lewis—still a U.S. congressman from Georgia—spoke to USA Today of his colleague’s role in SNCC and the civil rights movement: “Julian helped inspire an entire generation of young people, students, black and white. He spent so much time speaking on college campuses, telling the story of the movement. He was so smart, so gifted, so articulate and he had a way of getting to people, to students, to young people and he succeeded.”
In addition to his political career, Bond was a prominent fixture on the lecture circuit, a regular TV and print commentator, even hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 1977. He wrote both essays and poetry, and later in his career taught at Harvard, Williams, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania. He was also a scholar in residence at American University and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. In 1998, Bond was named chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a post he occupied for more than 10 years.
For all his accomplishments, Bond is perhaps best known for co-founding the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. He served as its president from 1971 to 1979 and remained on its board until his death. Bond’s activism continued even into his last years: In 2013, he tied himself to the White House fence along with other demonstrators protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline. As Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote on the organization’s website: “With Julian’s passing, the country has lost one of its most passionate and eloquent voices for the cause of justice. He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.”