By Marc H. Morial
“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.” – Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center
Julian Bond was never one to shrink away from a worthy fight. He lived his life as a tireless champion of the oppressed and maligned, a battle-worn warrior for civil rights, equality and social justice. Bond fought the good fight, and at the still-youthful age of 75, he completed his course.
His longtime dedication to equal rights for African-Americans – and for all – will be celebrated in the days and months to come. But we must guard against fossilizing his life and legacy in tributes or textbooks. Bond lived a life of action, clear mission and steadfast service.
There could be no worthier tribute to Bond than to pick up the baton he has passed and re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle to make the promises and opportunities of our democracy true for all its citizens. That struggle is an ongoing one that neither begins nor ends with one movement or personality.
Individually and collectively, we must take up the baton to bring an end to the deadly scourge of police brutality, close persistent economic inequality gaps and address destructive disparities in our nation’s education system. We must do it, because as Bond once famously reminded us all: “Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate.”
Bond was a student in a philosophy class taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College in Atlanta. It was there, during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, that Bond began to agitate in earnest, co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee along with other students, including now-Congressman John Lewis. He served as the group’s communications director for five years.
Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, but was not allowed to take his seat because his White colleagues objected to his opposition to the Vietnam War. It took a year, a protest march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a Supreme Court order, but the legislature finally allowed him to take his rightful seat in 1966. He spent 20 years in the Georgia Legislature, serving in both the House and the Senate.
In 1968, Bond became a national figure after delivering a fiery speech at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. His performance was so impressive; his name was placed into the nominating process for vice president – a position he could not qualify for because he was too young. Bond went on to serve as the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, remaining on its board for the rest of his life after his tenure came to an end in 1979. Later, he would also serve as chairman of the NAACP.
No matter the capacity, Bond was first and foremost an activist for equal rights. In addition to his political career and his work as a civil rights leader, Bond was an accomplished writer, he was a lecturer and a professor, a television show host and he narrated “Eyes on the Prize,” an iconic documentary on the Civil Rights Movement. Bond never stopped agitating because he fundamentally believed that, “the humanity of all Americans is diminished when any group is denied rights granted to others.” Bond never limited his philosophy to any community, region or nationality. Bond fought against segregation on our shores and apartheid in South Africa. He devoted himself to equal rights for all, including, most recently, the rights of the LGBT community.
Bond left a lasting legacy for us to explore, celebrate and continue. Whether it’s challenges to voting rights or inequity in education funding, many of the challenges he faced yesterday continue to plague our nation today. His lifelong fight for equality and justice must become our lifelong fight for the same. We can all become a part of his vision to create a more perfect union in our nation.
Our prayers and heartfelt sympathy are with his family, along with our promise to continue Julian’s fight.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.