Sunday, August 16, 2015

RIP Julian Bond, A Personal Hero


Saturday night, Julian Bond, one of my personal heroes, passed away. I didn't realize he was 75; I always assumed he was my age, maybe a year or two older. I first met him in 1966, and I'm going to tell you about that in a minute. In more recent years we've both been on the board of People for the American Way, where he has continued to inspire me. He's inspired a lot of people. In fact, this morning Eric Holder tweeted "Julian Bond-- activist, icon. A great man who made the gains of the next generation possible and the nation better. We owe him much."
From his days as the co-founder and communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s to his chairmanship of the NAACP in the 21st century, Julian was a visionary and tireless champion for civil and human rights. He served as the SPLC's president from our founding in 1971 to 1979, and later as a member of its board of directors.

With Julian's passing, the country has lost one of its most passionate and eloquent voices for the cause of justice. He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.
When I was a sophomore at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I became chairman of the Student Activities Board. In that position, over the years, I brought groundbreaking, mostly then-unknown artists to play at the campus, musicians on the cutting edge of pop culture: Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, Joni Mitchell, The Dead, Otis Redding, the Airplane, Big Brother, Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne, Muddy Waters, Country Joe, Ravi Shankar, Pink Floyd, The Byrds... But there was also a speakers series I felt I could use to help expose students to a more overtly cutting edge. I was happy to invite Timothy Leary to speak at the campus. And then there was Julian Bond.

Julian Bond was one of 8 African Americans elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in the wake of passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Come January 1966, however, the Georgia House voted 184-12 not to seat him because he publicly opposed the war against Vietnam. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Georgia House was depriving him of his freedom of speech and that they must seat him. They did, and I booked him to give a lecture at Stony Brook. Mrs. Couey, my lovely, batty old faculty adviser told me I couldn't present such an unbalanced program at a tax-funded university. I asked her if she wanted me to book the head of the KKK to balance it. "Now, Howie, you're so funny. You do the right thing." So I booked Senator Strom Thurmond as a speaker for the same evening. Balance!

A week before the event-- stoned out of my mind, as I was for my entire four years at Stony Brook-- I called Thurmond's office and explained that we're a struggling state university and the budget is tight and that I couldn't pay him the $5,000 I had offered and could he do it for $2,500? They said OK. I then called Julian and explained there was a change in plans and we would have to give him $7,500 instead of the agreed-upon $5,000. I felt I needed to do more.

The day of the event I picked Julian up at the airport in a fancy rented car and took him to the most exclusive restaurant in Suffolk County, the 3 Village Inn. We had an amazing dinner, and when we were leaving, we were approached in the parking lot by two waiters who said that although almost all the waiters were African Americans, this was the first time they had ever seen an African American eat there. They both had tears in their eyes.

Earlier I had asked my Hospitality Committee chairman to walk over to the Long Island Railroad Station and meet Thurmond. I gave him $10 and asked him to take the senator to a beer-and-pizza joint down the road from the campus for dinner. I knew Stephen would be very polite and charming to him-- it's in his nature. He was the most flamboyantly gay person I knew at the time.

Julian spoke, and the audience gave him a standing ovation. Then Senator Thurmond took the stage, and the entire audience-- as one and with no prompting-- got up and walked out of the gym. Mrs. Couey and Stephen, forever the most courteous and proper guy I had ever run across, stayed to hear Thurmond. No one ever told me what he talked about.

Julian served in the Georgia state legislature for two decades. Soon after he spoke at Stony Brook he was fighting on the floor of the Democratic convention in Chicago as the head of an alternative delegation trying to unseat the racists in the official delegation headed by Governor Lester Maddox, best known for having barred black students who wanted to eat at his segregated restaurant next to Georgia Tech with an ax handle-- and then for claiming LBJ and the communists put him out of business. The wave of the future. (The video at that link can't be embedded but I urge you to watch it.)

Sunday, President Obama issued this statement about Julian's passing: 
Julian Bond was a hero and, Iā€™m privileged to say, a friend. Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life-ā€“ from his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to his founding role with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to his pioneering service in the Georgia legislature and his steady hand at the helm of the NAACP. Michelle and I have benefited from his example, his counsel, and his friendship-ā€“ and we offer our prayers and sympathies to his wife, Pamela, and his children. Julian Bond helped change this country for the better. And what better way to be remembered than that?
A few years before I met Julian, he wrote this poem (1960):

I too, hear America singing
But from where I stand
I can only hear Little Richard
And Fats Domino.
But sometimes
I hear Ray Charles
Drowning in his own tears
or Bird
Relaxing at Camarillo
Or Horace Silver doodling,
Then I don't mind standing
a little longer.

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At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Nice Eulogy Howie. What a model.


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