Julian Bond: Civil rights leader who was seen by some as a potential first US black president

Bond had handsome looks, eloquence and deft touch with the media

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For almost half a century Julian Bond, activist, legislator, writer and orator, was one of the most prominent – and by common consent the most charismatic – leaders of the civil rights movement. His political career may have ended prematurely and in some disappointment. But at points in the 1960s and 1970s he was seen by some, albeit fancifully, as a potential first black president of America.

Bond's involvement with the struggle that defined much of the country's 20th century history began in 1960, when he co-founded, and served as national spokesman of the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), an organisation that soon became one of the driving forces of the movement.

Five years later, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he was one of 11 African-Americans elected to Georgia's state legislature. Initially its members refused to seat him, because of his and the SNCC's outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam. But he took legal action and the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favour. He served four terms in the Georgia House, followed by 12 years as a state senator.

The fracas helped turn him into a national figure – although his handsome looks, eloquence and deft touch with the media did no harm, either. At the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Bond's name was even placed in nomination for vice-president – but he quickly demurred, noting that his age, just 28, constitutionally disbarred him.

However his activism continued. Three years later he was a co-founder and first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to this day a leader in the fight against discrimination, hate groups and white supremacists, and remained on its board for the rest of his life.

But his attempt to take the step up from state to national politics was a bruising failure. In 1986, he ran for a seat in the US House, from Georgia's heavily Democratic fifth congressional district. His opponent was John Lewis, another lion of the civil rights struggle and an old friend from their days at SNCC, where Lewis had been president from 1963 to 1966.

The two were from opposite ends of the black social spectrum. Lewis was a sharecropper's son, while Bond's father was a university president and his mother a librarian. The campaign grew bitter as Lewis accused his rival of being an empty celebrity: "Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat" was his slogan. Bond was favourite, but Lewis beat him 52-48 in the primary run-off, and trounced his Republican opponent in the general election.

Allegations surfaced that Bond was a cocaine user. Some originated with his estranged first wife, who later retracted them. But a year later he resigned from the Georgia Senate, and his political career was effectively over.

However he never strayed far from the spotlight, teaching at universities including Harvard, writing and appearing on television. He made his peace with Lewis and from 1998-2010 was chairman of the NAACP, the country's oldest and most prestigious civil rights group. In his later years he was an outspoken champion of gay marriage, which he saw as another front in the battle for civil rights. As he put it in 2011, "I know a little something about fighting for what's right and just."

RUPERT CORNWELL

Horace Julian Bond, civil rights leader: born Nashville, Tennessee 14 January 1940; married 1961 Alice Clopton 1961 (divorced 1989; five children) 1990 Pamela Horowitz 1990; died Fort Walton Beach, Florida 15 August 2015.

Comments