The fight for voting rights was always a key cause for Julian Bond over his distinguished life.
In 1965, as communications director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Bond coordinated the group’s media response from Atlanta after SNCC Chairman John Lewis nearly died marching for voting rights on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. Bond made sure the country knew about the atrocities in Selma and finally did something about it.
Later that year, Bond won election to the Georgia House of Representatives, at twenty-five, illustrating the power of the new Voting Rights Act (VRA). After the legislature refused to seat him, for saying he agreed with a SNCC letter denouncing the Vietnam War, Bond appealed to the Supreme Court and won two more elections before the Court unanimously ruled that Bond deserved his seat.
He became one of the most well known politicians in America, but that didn’t stop Bond from continuing the painstaking, unglamorous work of democratizing the South. In the 1970s, he traveled extensively with Lewis on behalf of the Voter Education Project, registering black voters and encouraging them to run for office in forgotten places like Waterproof, Louisiana and Belzoni, Mississippi.
I wrote a lot about Bond’s work on voting rights and trips with Lewis in my new book Give Us the Ballot:
Their stops included civil rights battlegrounds like Belzoni, where fifteen years earlier George Lee, the first black to register in Humphreys County, was shot to death in his car after leading a group of blacks to register at the county courthouse. As Lewis and Bond spoke during an evening rally at a small black church, Belzoni’s mayor, Henry H. Gantz, a well-dressed middle-aged white man, unexpectedly burst through the door and walked down the center of the aisle. In the past, Gantz might’ve arrested everyone in the church for unlawful assembly. Instead, he clasped Bond and Lewis by the hand and told them: “Welcome to Belzoni. You two are doing wonderful work. You’re fighting bigotry and injustice. You’re a credit to your race.”
“He didn’t come down to the church to hear us speak,” an amused Bond said to the stunned crowd afterward. “He came down to be seen hearing us speak. He likes being mayor of Belzoni. He wants to go on being mayor of Belzoni. The reason he came to that church was that the black people have a weapon. It’s not a two-by-four; it’s not a gun or a brick. This weapon is the vote. You go down to the mayor’s office and hit him with a two-by-four, and he’ll remember it the next day. But if you hit him with the vote, he’ll remember it for the rest of his natural-born life.”