The Lincoln Theatre on Tuesday was filled with a generation of activists who waged battles to integrate this country. They laughed with, cried and hugged the family of Julian Bond, in celebration of an iconic civil rights figure who never lost his wit, boyish good looks or passion in seeking justice for all Americans.
“Whenever Julian was asked by friends or a stranger how he was doing, he would say, ‘almost perfect,’ and to me he was almost perfect,” said Pamela Horowitz, Bond’s widow, who welcomed people to celebrate the life of the political legend, who died in August at 75.
And while Bond’s ashes were scattered into the waters off the Gulf Coast near Destin, Fla., many in Washington — from civil rights leaders to college professors — were grateful for the chance to memorialize Bond.
More than 1,200 people attended Tuesday’s event. They were serenaded with “Oh Freedom,” “This Little Light of Mine” and other songs, performed by Ralph Herndon, Scotty Barnhart and three groups: The Choral Arts Society of Washington, the Heritage Signature Chorale and the Freedom Singers.
In the audience were current members of Congress, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), along with Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the daughter of former president Lyndon B. Johnson.
The event was organized by the Southern Poverty Law Center and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. It honored Bond, the Nashville native who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1960, who later became the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bond also later served as chairman of the NAACP.
In addition to being a civil rights pioneer, Bond was a politician and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, serving in that chamber until 1975, when he moved on to the state Senate, where he served six terms.
“I realize now how wise … was our great leader Julian Bond,” said Morris Dees, a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “In him I hope that we have lived up to the expectations that Julian placed in us … in the words of the prophet Amos, words chosen by Rev. Martin Luther King in this town, that we will not be satisfied until justice rolls over like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
While former NAACP Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams praised Bond’s efforts, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, talked about how Bond was concerned about many communities: “Julian’s legacy was cemented in the history books long before he spoke out for LGBT Americans. … He didn’t have to fight as an ally, but he did, and in doing so, he became our greatest champion.”
Heather Booth, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member, said, “Julian knew if we organize we can change the world, but only if we organize, by taking action for civil rights, LGBT equality, voting rights, immigration and all of the struggles of the future may arise. We will honor Julian’s life … when, like Julian, we commit to that struggle.”
From 1992 to 2012, Bond was a history professor at the University of Virginia. Deborah E. McDowell, director of the U-Va. Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, said that when Bond first came to the campus, “there were those, even among the faculty who dismissed him as figurehead, to demonstrate just how far we had come from the parts of our past. … Julian proved them wrong, not only by the example that he set but by his commitment to civil rights and social justice in and beyond the classroom.”
Michael Bond, an Atlanta city councilman, spoke on behalf of Bond’s children. “He stood up and spoke truth the power over and over again … for us he was simply Dad,” he said, and whether it was going for ice cream on Sunday afternoons or being chased by their dad through a mall in Atlanta, those times were special. “Because of my father’s busy schedule,” he said, “my youngest sibling, Julia, believed that he lived at the airport.”
And while speeches were offered by nearly a dozen people, the biggest testimony to Bond’s legacy was the large number of people who mingled in the foyer of the Lincoln Theatre long after the program was over, from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, like Dorie Ladner, to Robb, who was a child when her father, as president, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.
“Being here today reminds us of the commitment to the world to make it a better place,” said Robb, adding that one of Bond’s key skills was being able to motivate ordinary people to fight for justice. “It was not the famous people; it was the nameless people. After Julian Bond made his speech and left town that had to go through and deal with people at their church, the grocery store, wherever they worked.”
Kathie Sarachild, Pam Jones and Penny Patch were among the last people to leave the Lincoln Theatre. The former Freedom Riders used their maiden names as they talked about the summer of 1964, when they faced death threats while trying to integrate Winona, Miss.
As Patch showed Jones a picture that she took of her, with a 24-year old Julian Bond in the background, she laughed when she recalled what someone yelled shortly after they arrived in town: “By the end of the night, you all going to be at the bottom of the Mississippi River.”