Civil Rights Titan Bond Looks Back
By Jessica Ablamsky
|Queens College student Jennifer Meza with Bond during his Feb. 17 visit to the school.
"It is difficult to tell people you used to sit in the back of the bus," said Julian Bond, a civil rights leader whose lifelong activism has inspired generations.
His name is not often uttered without mention of the seminal Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he helped found. SNCC - pronounced SNICK - is the 1960s-era group whose members, at great personal risk, organized lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
It is a time in his life for which Bond hopes he will always be remembered.
"I'm quite proud of that," he said. "That's not the only thing I've done that I'm proud of, but I'm proud of that and I'm happy to be remembered for that."
The author, activist, professor and subject of several biographies, with 20 years in the Georgia State Legislature under his belt, serves on the boards of organizations ranging from the NAACP to the Southern Law Poverty Center. He recently spoke at Queens College, in honor of a new addition to the Civil Rights Archive.
"I have retired a couple of times from my teaching jobs, but they kept on making me an offer I couldn't refuse," he said.
The Politics of Compromise
The 71-year-old said he has yet to accomplish what he is most proud of.
It will be many years before freedom and justice become a reality across America, said Bond, discussing a realization that came many years ago.
"When I started out in the movement when I was 18, I and countless others thought these things would be settled pretty quickly," he said. "I think most of us now realize that we are still in it for the long haul and it is not likely to reach total solutions in our lifetimes. We'll have to keep plugging away, and those who come after us will keep plugging away
"All of the peoples of the country who are denied their rights have to be included in this. I have special interest in peoples of color because I am one of them, but I don't think I stand ahead of any of them in who gets their rights first."
Among those rights are gay marriage and abortion, for which Bond has provided outspoken and sometimes controversial support.
"You don't have to respect idiocy," he said. "You don't have to respect wrong-headedness. If you think that gay people shouldn't marry in your church, that's okay with me."
But marriage is as much a right as it is a rite, he explained, adding, "if you don't like abortion, don't have one."
When viewed through the lens of a society whose black and white populations were once separated by a seemingly insurmountable chasm, Bond does not think Americans are more polarized today.
The current political environment is "harder because I can't remember any time in my lifetime that we've had one political party determined to say 'no' to everything," he said. "If that is going to be the case, you can't get anything done."
Compromise is a virtue he learned to appreciate over time.
"If you and I are having an argument, I will compromise up to my principles," he said. "But I won't compromise my principles. If you can't find some common ground with me, we can't get anyplace."
The James Forman Library
Bond's lecture celebrated Queens College's recent acquisition of James Forman's personal library and recordings. Bond worked closely with Forman, SNCC's executive secretary.
Forman was a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and the Freedom Rides and the key framer of the "Black Manifesto," which demanded reparations to African Americans in payment for the hardships of slavery.
The Forman library consists of approximately 2,000 books, over 2,100 pamphlets, academic journals and printed ephemera as well as a variety of audio and moving image material - a major addition to the history of Civil Rights in America. This contribution by the Forman family is the latest acquisition in the college's expanding archive of original materials from the Civil Rights era.
The Spark That Lit
Based on a by-the-numbers comparison, Bond said the current generation's quest for equality comes up lacking; his was the last to work towards social justice, work that was done particularly, but not exclusively, by African Americans.
"We marched and organized and we sustained that for 10 years," he said. "I think part of the reason is that people who are my age who lived through this sometimes didn't want their children to know about it. This was a bad time, and if you thought that you could protect your children by separating them from it, you did."
The history teacher believes that another problem is a high school curriculum that does not emphasize the civil rights movement. This complicated piece of history teaches a lesson that still resonates: when people work together they can win.
"When Rosa Parks sat down on the bus by herself, she prompted others to do what she did," he said. "She could not do it by herself." For Bond, it does not seem so long ago that he was forced to sit in the back of the bus.
"I've thought when I die I want to have a double-sided tombstone," he said. "On one side, it will say, 'Race man.' Meaning, I didn't put my race above other races but I thought it equaled other races. On the other side it would say, 'Easily amused.'"
Reach Reporter Jessica Ablamsky at email@example.com or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 124.