Celebrating the life of Julian Bond

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By The Atlantic

I saw Julian Bond standing outside the U.S. Supreme Court on April 28 of this year, the day the Court heard argument in Obergefell v. Hodges, the historic same-sex marriage case. My usual practice is to leave celebrities alone in public. I had met Bond once before, but he didn’t know me from Adam’s off ox.

Yet for some reason I felt I had to speak. It may have been the symbolism of this civil-rights icon waiting to be present at another chapter in the long quest for human equality; it may, quite honestly, have been the simple majesty of his tall figure. But it was also because I wanted to tell him how much some words that I remember him uttering nearly half a century ago meant to me.

The words were, “Maybe they’ll change the law.”

At the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the name of Bond, then a 28-year-old Georgia state representative, was placed in nomination, making him the first African American to be nominated for vice president at a major-party convention. The problem, of course, is that a 28-year-old cannot serve as Vice President. When a TV reporter posed this conundrum to Bond, as I recall the scene, he answered, “Maybe they’ll change the law.”

Bond eventually withdrew his name because of the age issue; but to me, his the answer echoed long after the delegates went home. I know there are generations’ worth of reasons why I can’t be who I am and do what I do, Bond seemed to be saying, and I don’t care about any of them.

Last April, I went up to Bond on the Court sidewalk and told him I remembered those words frequently.

He smiled politely. Julian Bond, who died Sunday at the age of 75, met a lot of people.

Bond did change the law in more ways than one—as an organizer of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a participant in its historic sit-in movement, in the 1960s; as a member of the Georgia General Assembly from 1966 to 1987; as board president of the Southern Poverty Law Center from 1971 to 1979; and as chair of the NAACP from 1998 to 2008.

Here’s just one change Bond made in American constitutional law. For most anyone else, Bond v. Floyd would be a lifetime’s worth of legacy. In Julian Bond’s obituaries, it is almost a footnote.

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Bond was one of 11 African Americans elected to the Georgia House. But when he arrived at the state capitol on January 10, 1966, the House refused to seat him, at the urging of Representative James “Sloppy” Floyd. SNCC had issued a statement opposing the war in Vietnam and expressing support for young men who refused induction into the military. America denied justice to black people at home, the statement argued; it was impossible to believe that its war would bring justice to the people of Asia. Asked about the statement on the radio, Bond had supported it. This meant, Sloppy Floyd said, that Bond could not take a legislator’s oath to support the Constitution.

At a special House committee hearing, Bond testified, “I have never suggested or counseled or advocated that any one other person burn their draft card. In fact, I have mine in my pocket and will produce it if you wish. I do not advocate that people should break laws. What I simply try to say was that I admired the courage of someone who could act on his convictions knowing that he faces pretty stiff consequences.” The committee reaffirmed Bond’s exclusion—and so did a three-judge federal district court. Over one dissent, the panel majority wrote that the SNCC statement was a “call to action based on race; a call alien to the concept of the pluralistic society which makes this nation.” Thus the legislature had a “rational basis” for excluding Bond.

Georgia Governor Carl Sanders declared Bond’s seat vacant. The voters elected him again. The House excluded him again. Bond appealed directly to the Supreme Court. The state argued that anyone who criticized the war, and supported draft resisters, could not honestly take the legislative oath. The Court heard argument on November 10, 1966, and released its unanimous opinion less than a month later. Under the U.S. Constitution, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, Bond was entitled to his seat.

“While the State has an interest in requiring its legislators to swear to a belief in constitutional processes of government, surely the oath gives it no interest in limiting its legislators’ capacity to discuss their views of local or national policy,” Warren wrote for a unanimous Court. “We therefore hold that the disqualification of Bond from membership in the Georgia House because of his statements violated Bond’s right of free expression under the First Amendment.” Bond served for 20 years, first in the House, then in the State Senate. Sloppy Floyd died in 1974; remembering him, Georgia Secretary of State Ben Fortson told the press “Floppy Soyd was a great man.” His name lives on, emblazoned on various state office buildings, and on a state park where children come to play.

Bond v. Floyd established that state legislatures must be open to all, and that political elites could not hide behind federalism to exclude representatives of whom they don’t approve. Three years later, the Court extended that same principle to the U.S. Congress, which had excluded Harlem Representative Adam Clayton Powell, allegedly because he was corrupt.

Today the principle that a legislator may criticize national policy, and even express sympathy for civil disobedience, seems so obvious as to need no explanation. But it was not so clear back then. If you doubt that, consider that one of the federal judges who voted against Bond was Griffin B. Bell of the Fifth Circuit, a Kennedy appointee who later served as Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General.

Julian Bond was one of a “greatest generation,” men and women, old and young, who demanded that the South scrap its apartheid regime and become a modern democracy. Those walls came tumbling down; the principles of openness and equality they wrote into the law benefit all of us.

Today, that legacy is under siege. Southern conservatives have the Voting Rights Act in their sights, and a sympathetic Supreme Court has already weakened its protections. The justices have cut back on school desegregation, they seem poised to do away with affirmative action, and the Fair Housing Act had a narrow escape last term. The battle for equality often seems uphill at best, and sometimes even hopeless.

But who knows? Maybe they’ll change the law.

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