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Civil Rights Survivors

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Bond Dr. Julian Bond during part of his teaching day at UVA. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Post)
CHARLOTTESVILLE—Even to Julian Bond it seems like a wake. On this April evening, about 60 friends, colleagues and well-wishers sit in folding chairs on the mezzanine of the University of Virginia bookstore. Seven people – one by one – walk up to the lectern and speak bountifully of Bond. Finally, the newly elected chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People takes center stage.

To Bond's left and right are poster-size photos from his life – Bond in Atlanta, Bond in Birmingham, Bond at U-Va. On a table nearby the store manager has thoughtfully laid out books about civil rights, many of which have sections or whole chapters devoted to Bond. A tape of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") Freedom Singers, featuring the golden voice of Cordell Reagon, plays in the room.

In a white shirt, olive suit, dark-rimmed glasses and with hair the color of tarnished silver, Bond looks at those gathered, then to the ceiling. "I hear the music. Some of it is funereal," says Bond, patting the pocket of his jacket. "But I know I'm still here."

At an age when most people would be downshifting and coasting toward retirement, Bond, 58, is in perpetual motion. Last year he made more than 50 speeches around the world. He teaches history once a week at American University and twice a week at the University of Virginia. In February he was elected chairman of the NAACP – the oldest and largest civil rights group in the country.

It is an organization, some say, that has outlived its usefulness. It's the perfect place, some say, for Bond. At a time when both might be considered over the hill, they have found each other.

Ron Walters, a professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland, applauds the election because of the "sense of tradition and legacy." But, he adds, "there is a lot of feeling that the organization ought to move in another direction. There is some confusion about the mission."

Black people like having the NAACP around, Walters explains, but they don't always feel that it addresses their day-to-day interests – crimes, jobs, schools, quality of life.

In Bond, the NAACP has a strong, solid, knowledgeable voice that embodies the past. "Julian Bond comes to that position without anything to prove," says NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. "He's fought many of the battles people read about or sing about."

Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy says that Bond's election is a boon. "I think it's a very hopeful sign," Kennedy says. "There've been many disturbing questions raised about the future of the NAACP over the past decade. One persistent complaint has been that the NAACP did not seem to be making use of talented people, frankly. I think Bond is a person who is very thoughtful, very talented, very well spoken."

"Julian Bond comes with a sense of history," says Earl G. Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. "Nobody questions his blackness in terms of what he's fought for, what he stands for."

"The NAACP has needed very talented and selfless board leadership for a long time," says Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University and a longtime friend of Bond's. "Julian, with his array of talents and his credentials in civil rights, brings that and a wonderful sheen to the organization. And he's persuasive."

Wilkins says Bond has persuaded him to be chairman of the editorial board of Crisis, the NAACP's magazine.

In the NAACP, Bond has regained a national platform.

"When I speak now," Bond says, "I speak for half a million people."

That's a far cry from a dozen years ago. Those were the stormy days of Julian Bond. In April 1987, Bond's estranged wife told Atlanta police that Bond was addicted to cocaine. That led to a grand jury investigation. When Bond was asked by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post if he had taken drugs, he said he had not. But the clouds hung over his head for years.

Whatever happened, Bond will not comment on it today. That was his personal life, he says. "I was never out of control."

But he did pass through hard times, friends say. His marriage dissolved. He lost a lot of weight. There was a period of decline. One close friend remembers seeing Bond one day in Union Station in the late '80s. "I was just shocked," the friend recalls. "He had on a big jacket and an Atlanta Braves cap. He looked like he was not well."

"Julian took a fall for some reason. He surely took a fall," says Wilkins. "For all of us who went through the heat of the '60s, there really was a post-traumatic stress syndrome. There was a riskiness during that time. We lived in a heightened state you couldn't sustain, drawing on reserves of emotional energy that left you in a terribly depleted state."

Bond found a home in the classroom as a part-time professor at American University. He continued to anchor a syndicated TV show called "America's Black Forum."

For the most part, however, he was one of those political legends who had once accomplished phenomenal feats, then faded off the screen.

Whispers and Rumors

"You can't rely on what you did in the '60s," Julian Bond says. "In this fight you renew your credentials every day."

Bond's got credentials.

Born in 1940, Horace Julian Bond was the son of Julia and Horace Mann Bond, a college president. Julian Bond was the middle of three children. He earned good grades. He was handsome. He made friends easily.

"Julian was just one of the very lucky people of his generation," Wilkins says. Despite his privileged upbringing, Wilkins adds, Bond was always committed to the Cause.

As a student at Morehouse College, Bond led demonstrations to desegregate public places in Atlanta. SNCC hired him as communications director in 1960.

Today he remembers the laborious task of putting out a simple press release. "We didn't even have the basic tool: a mimeograph machine."

In his new book, "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," congressman John Lewis writes of first meeting Bond. "He was, like most of the Atlanta members, more upper crust than those of us from Nashville," Lewis writes. "Julian had grown up in an environment of books and thoughts, but he didn't let any of that get in the way of his humanity or his heart."

When only 25 years old, Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. He was refused a seat because he opposed the Vietnam War. He eventually served four terms in the Georgia House and six in the state Senate. He represented Georgia at the 1968 Democratic Convention, which drove Gov. Lester Maddox mad. There was even a push to put Bond on the ballot as a vice-presidential candidate, but at 28, he was too young.

He was a national hero by the time he was 30 and a hallmark of the promise of young black people in a country that was fast changing colors. In the mid-'70s, Bond applied unsuccessfully for jobs as the executive director of the NAACP and director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1977 he hosted "Saturday Night Live." He appeared in three movies, including "Greased Lightning" with Richard Pryor. He also auditioned for an on-camera job at ABC's "20/20." In 1986, he ran for Congress against his compatriot John Lewis. Bond lost.

The graceful, telegenic Bond and the hard-faced Lewis will forever be seen as bookends. Lewis revisits this in his memoir. When the campaign commenced, Lewis writes, "we had grown apart . . . Julian enjoyed being a star. He approached his work as if it were an inconvenience. Everything had always come easily for Julian; sweating was not something he liked to do.

"And yet now he wanted to be a congressman. And everyone assumed he would be a shoo-in. And that bothered me a great deal."

One of the turning points in the campaign was Bond's refusal to take a drug test. As Lewis writes, "For years there had been whispers and rumors about Julian and drugs – not just about Julian, but also about the people on his staff. They were never substantiated but the rumors persisted."

Bond was never charged with possession of drugs.

He's spent the past 12 years trying to restore credibility to his name.

"Remember," he often says, playing on the name, "my word . . . is my bond."

A Question of Relevance

The NAACP also has a walletful of credentials.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP, based in Baltimore, has been a prime mover of monumental legislative change. In the first half of the century, the group pressured lawmakers to change voting restrictions, housing ordinances and other discriminatory practices. In 1919 the NAACP lobbied for anti-lynching laws. During the New Deal, the group was a vocal reminder to the government to include minorities in social programs and it decried segregation in the armed forces during World War II. The NAACP fought for school desegregation and the passage of the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Rights Act of 1968.

The list of accomplishments trails off in the 1970s and 1980s. Again there are parallels between the lives of the NAACP and Julian Bond.

"I can't imagine where this country would be without the NAACP," says association board member Joe Madison. "The strength of the NAACP has always been its impact on public policy."

Earlier this decade, the group hit turbulent waters. Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was accused of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement in 1994 and was sacked. Hazel Dukes of New York was removed from the board of directors after admitting that she bilked $13,000 from a leukemia-stricken associate.

In 1995, Myrlie Evers-Williams was elected chairman of the board. Together with President and Chief Executive Officer Mfume, Evers-Williams helped rectify the group's financial woes and return some luster to the legacy.

The health of the organization is definitely improving, says Paul Ruffins, former editor of the Crisis magazine, "given that the patient was in cardiac arrest." When Evers-Williams retired, Bond became chairman. In a close race, he beat several contenders, including Joe Madison.

"If I had to lose to anybody," says Madison, who hosts a Washington radio talk show, "I'm glad it was to Julian. He brings a lot of experience as a legislator. He understands public policy and he brings a name – nationally and internationally. That opens doors. He has a good name."

"I will be able to sleep well at night knowing Julian Bond is chairman of the NAACP," Evers-Williams said in a statement.

These days Bond's stump speech is a vociferous defense of the NAACP. He usually begins with this story: When Bond was a student, he and Martin Luther King Jr. were walking across the Morehouse campus. It was a beautiful day. Bond asked King how things were going. King said he wasn't feeling good about a lot of things. There was too much crime, too much unemployment, too much racism. "I have a nightmare," King said. "No, Doc," I said, "turn it around: I have a dream."

Is the joke funny? Poignant? True? Ironic?

Bond continues, in his mellifluous radio voice, outlining the NAACP agenda. Favoring affirmative action, railing against school vouchers, supporting full funding for the civil rights wings of federal agencies, registering and educating voters – Bond has a whole list of actions he wants the organization to take.

As chairman of the NAACP, his message carries weight. "People pay more attention to what I say," he says. "And I think I say what they need to hear."

For the first time, Bond will be called on to work within a large organization, as the high point in a hierarchy. "He's never been an institutional man," says Roger Wilkins. "He's never had to deal with internal politics."

As one of his first official steps, Bond appointed James Ghee, a disbarred lawyer and convicted embezzler from Virginia, to several high-powered NAACP committees. The move outraged some members. Ghee's notoriety, Madison says, could have a chilling effect on the group's positive direction. "I think Ghee's appointment was a mistake," he says.

"Ghee was reappointed to these positions," counters Bond. He points out that the board, with no dissenting votes, ratified Ghee's appointment in February. "I have confidence in him. I believe in second chances. He's paid his price. He's served his time."

For the new chairman of the prestigious civil rights organization the biggest challenge, oddly enough, may be convincing young people that the NAACP is still relevant.

It's virtually impossible to tell kids about the racism and discrimination the NAACP faced over the years, Bond says. "They say, 'Gee, I never would have put up with that.' "

When asked how he plans to attract young people to the organization, he says, "We have more youth members than any other secular organization, including 350 high school and college chapters."

"The truth is, we have never had enough youth or adult members. We still don't today," he says. "The current level of membership generally is too low."

The NAACP, Bond says, "needs to become a visible presence in the lives of young people, to meet them where they are. We've got to find some way to speak to the kids who aren't in college – as well as those who are."

At the same time, Bond says, "we need to move into the 20th century" – he pauses to let the irony sink in – with more fax machines and computers "to be better able to mobilize our grass roots membership."

He says, "People look at us and they see Mr. Mfume or they see me. He and I are not the NAACP. It's the volunteer president in Anytown, Kansas, who has a job and family and still, on evenings and weekends, does NAACP work. In that place the NAACP is probably a phone in a church basement. We've got to make sure he's got a fax machine. We've got to be sure we can be in instant communications with him, or more likely, her."

That way, Bond says, "when a member of Congress needs to be reminded to do the right thing, he can hear from us in a moment."

There are still hurdles.

"I have students who wouldn't think of joining an organization with the words 'colored people' in it," says one of Bond's U-Va. colleagues.

Tomika Anderson, 21, is president of U-Va.'s Black Student Alliance. "In school," Anderson says, "I learned that the NAACP was a bourgeois organization. It has appealed historically to upper-class and middle-class blacks. I don't necessarily believe that, but I can see how it has shaped opinions. That is a reason why black students don't see a need to join the black NAACP."

Often the same question comes up: Why would Bond attach himself to the NAACP? He answers, "I've been a member since I was in high school. All the other organizations of my youth have vanished. This organization is a survivor."

Funereal Music

After the bookstore reception, Julian Bond and his second wife, Pam Horowitz, stop for dinner at the College Inn. In the cafe, Bond looks healthy. He is not gaunt anymore. His skin is bothering him. He suffers from psoriasis, but he's found an anticancer drug, methotrexate, which seems to be helping. Because of the possible side effects of this treatment, he goes in for a biopsy every three years.

On this the eve of his biopsy, he laughs a lot and teases Horowitz about watching the Weather Channel. Bond comments on the night and how nice everyone had been.

He says it was eerie to hear the music of the SNCC Freedom Singers. It was even weirder, he says, to hear the voice of Cordell Reagon, who had promised to sing at Bond's funeral.

In 1996, Reagon was killed at his apartment in Berkeley.

"I sang at his funeral instead," Bond says.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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