The muscles in his face still tighten at the memory. Julian Bond was walking to the train station in Philadelphia after lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania, when a carload of white teenagers passed by. “Hey, nigger, get a job!” they jeered. Bond froze in outrage as the car sped away from him. “I wanted to yell at them, ‘I could buy you and your car four times over,’ ” he says. “My resentment boils over just thinking about it.”
Perhaps most disturbing was the fact that the incident occurred in the 1990s. “Over the last decade, I think racial relations have stagnated or gotten worse,” says Bond, who places some of the blame on conservatives in Congress. “They’ve aroused white America’s fears about such things as affirmative action,” he explains, “and rhetorically they’ve gotten the upper hand.”
Such is his concern that the 58-year-old lecturer at the University of Virginia and Washington’s American University chose, in February, to accept the chairmanship of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Spearheading a $50 million fund-raising campaign, Bond hopes to breathe new life into the 500,000-member organization, which has suffered complaints that it no longer seems relevant, especially to the young. Says Bond: “I want to reenergize all these people to put political pressure on elected officials—to make it a powerful voting bloc for supporters of civil rights.”
Bond’s selection has been warmly received. “He has the ability to do what the NAACP needs—raise money and get media attention,” says Johns Hopkins University historian Ron Walters. The new role also gives Bond a chance to regain some of the national reputation he lost through a series of political and personal setbacks. “He was the most charismatic of the younger generation of protest leaders,” says Tamar Jacoby, author of Someone Else’s House, a study of civil rights in the ’80s. “But he had a hard time translating that idealism into practical, workaday politics.”
There were, for Bond, great expectations. When he was a child, his father, Horace, president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and the famed African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois cracked open a bottle of champagne and prophesied that the precocious child, growing up among the black intellectual elite, would surely become a renowned leader himself. Seeming to fulfill that prediction, Bond entered Morehouse College in Atlanta, led sit-ins in 1960 that integrated the city’s lunch counters and helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an offshoot of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A talented writer and speaker, Bond became the group’s communications director. “If it hadn’t been for Julian in the early 1960s, the story of the movement would have been buried in the media,” says Congressman John Lewis.
But as SNCC grew more militant, Bond chose to move on. He won election from a predominantly black district to the Georgia legislature in 1965, was denied his seat after voicing opposition to the Vietnam war and regained it only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the legislature had violated his First Amendment rights. His political star rose further when, at the 1968 Democratic convention, his name was placed in nomination for the vice presidency- despite the fact that, at 28, he was legally too young for the job.
Then began a surprising decline. Though elected to the Georgia Senate in 1974, he had little impact in a body that “looked at Bond and saw a radical,” says Atlanta media consultant Tom Houck. “Rural legislators had amazing power, and they used it against him.” In 1977 a state-house colleague called Bond the most ineffective legislator, and Bond himself conceded at the time that he had lacked self-discipline.
In 1986, Bond gave up his senate seat to run for Congress in a district he had helped create but lost to his friend John Lewis. “I expected to win,” says Bond, “but John was successful in defining me to the electorate as someone who had not worked hard. It wasn’t true.” Four months later, Alice, his wife of 25 years and mother of his five children (Phyllis, now 36, Horace Mann, 34, Michael, 32, Jeffrey, 30, and Julia Louise, 28), accused him of adultery and of using cocaine. She later recanted the drug charge, but they divorced in 1989. The following year, Bond admitted fathering a child with another woman.
Out of office, Bond retreated to academia and media jobs, teaching history and hosting the syndicated TV show America’s Black Forum. In 1990 he wed Washington lawyer Pamela Horowitz, now 52. Though eager to face the challenge of the NAACP, Bond marvels at his elder-statesman status. “If you had told me when I was at SNCC that I would be chair of the NAACP, I would’ve said no way,” he says. “I would’ve said they were a bunch of old, gray-haired people. But now I am one of those gray-haired people, and I want the NAACP to be the most powerful advocacy group in America.”
Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Rochelle Jones in Washington