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.”
Bond and Lewis shockingly ran for Congress against each other during a special election for Atlanta’s 5th Congressional District—the hub of the city’s civil rights movement—in 1987. The fact that best friends competed for the same seat showed how few opportunities there were for black politicians in the South even decades after passage of the VRA. There were only two black members of Congress in the South at the time, “so it was this seat or none,” Bond told me. That began to change after Lewis’s upset victory, and there are twenty black members of Congress representing the South today.
Bond remained committed to the power of the vote when he became chairman of the NAACP, attending the signing ceremony where George W. Bush signed the VRA’s reauthorization in 2006. But seven years later, Bond watched in disbelief as the Supreme Court gutted the centerpiece of the VRA.
“This is a bad, bad day for civil rights,” Bond said. “There’s a proven record of discrimination in many states in this country. We can see during the last election these attempts at voter suppression nationwide in states both North and South. To imagine that this problem has been solved—or even more, to imagine that Congress, which is so dysfunctional, could deal with correcting this, is a myth.”
Chief Justice John Roberts “has done all he can do to frustrate the right of black people to vote, and it’s a sad commentary on him and on our judicial system that he’s allowed to do so,” Bond said during a speech at Dartmouth.
I asked Bond, for a 2013 profile of Lewis, if the attack on voting rights in states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin following the 2010 election surprised him. “I was naïve to think voting rights were untouchable,” Bond responded. “I didn’t dream that Republicans would be as bold and as racist as they are.”
On August 6, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the VRA, Bond urged the Congress to restore the landmark civil rights law. He tweeted, “Thanks to the Roberts Supreme Court and Congress we are celebrating the anniversary of the VRA without the VRA. Commit to its restoration!”
Protecting voting rights today would be a fitting way to honor Bond’s remarkable civil rights legacy.