“A Tribute to and a Memory of Julian Bond”

American flag
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

It was with great sadness I read the news of Julian Bond’s death over the weekend.  He was a true icon of the civil rights movement who devoted his life to fighting injustice in all its forms. For over half a century, he worked tirelessly as an organizer, legislator, and leader to eradicate prejudice and discrimination, and in the process, bettered the lives of countless millions of Americans. Today, like many others who knew this remarkable man, I wanted to honor his memory by sharing a brief account of how I came to know Julian.

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Bond v. Floyd that Julian Bond’s constitutional rights had been denied when the Georgia Legislature refused to seat him as an elected member because of comments he had made regarding the Vietnam War. Though his colleagues in the legislature may have been ultimately unsuccessful in their bid to block his election to the State House, this was far from the last indignity to which he would be subjected by officials in Georgia.  

Some fifteen years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, I had the privilege of first meeting Julian when I was an attorney working in the Voting Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.  At the time, the Department was embroiled in a case called Busbee v. Smith, a dispute over the reapportionment of Georgia’s congressional districts.  As a Georgia state senator, Julian had introduced a bill  which would have created, in effect, a district in the Atlanta area that enabled black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.  The legislature rejected his bill for racially discriminatory reasons and instead drew a district for the Atlanta region where a majority of the registered voters were white.  

DOJ blocked implementation of the new district boundaries under the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and a trial was held before a three-judge district court in DC.  Ari Berman’s recently published book “Give Us the Ballot” notes, among some other extraordinary details about the case:

“The Georgia Legislature, which was still dominated by whites, blocked Bond’s bill.  ‘I’m not going to draw a nigger district if I can help it,’ said Representative Joe Mack Wilson, a Democrat from Marietta who was chair of the house redistricting committee.”

The three-judge court had no trouble rejecting Georgia’s proposed plan on the grounds that it had been enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose, going so far as to include this remarkable finding of fact in its opinion: “Representative Joe Mack Wilson is a racist.” (And he was.) 

During the course of the trial, Julian was called as a witness and I was asked to help prep him for his testimony (though I was not a member of the trial team, I was asked to assist during the trial).  We spent the morning in his hotel room going over the questions he would be asked by DOJ attorneys during direct examination, and the issues which might arise during cross examination by the State’s lawyers, who included the Georgia Attorney General himself: Mike Bowers. Julian was a quick study and I had every confidence he would do well, though I could sense he was a little nervous. 

When we arrived at the courthouse, the trial was in session and Julian was scheduled to be called as a witness that afternoon.  Julian asked if we could enter the courtroom, and I said yes, but asked him to wait a moment.  Although ‘the rule’ had been invoked—meaning lay witnesses could not appear in the courtroom during the trial until after they testified and were excused—Julian was exempt from the rule because he was a party to the lawsuit as a defendant-intervenor (represented by the ACLU’s legendary voting rights lawyers Laughlin McDonald and Neil Bradley).  I explained to Julian that we wanted him to make what we called a “grand entrance.”  First, I would bang on the courtroom door, and then, once everyone had looked back to see what was going on, the doors would swing open and in would walk the Julian Bond (who was, by now, a legendary figure in his own right).

Julian asked why we would do this, and I replied that once everyone saw him, it would prompt Attorney General Bowers to immediately object to his presence in the courtroom as a witness, forgetting that Julian was a party and entitled to be present.  I explained it was mostly atmospheric, but it was also consistent with our argument that the white power structure which permeated Georgia’s politics was in direct opposition to black voting rights in general, and Julian’s leadership in particular. 

Whether Julian thought I was a little crazy or not, I don’t know. Regardless, he went along with our plan. I banged the door, everyone turned around, the doors opened slowly—almost regally—and in strode Georgia State Senator Julian Bond.  I still swear I heard trumpets blare and angels sing as he made his entry into the courtroom, with a certain aura around him—the glow that we all came to love about Julian’s presence. 

As if on cue, Attorney General Bowers stood up and objected to Julian’s presence in the courtroom.  And, similarly on cue, Judge Charles Richey reminded Mr. Bowers that “Mr. Bond is a party and entitled to be in the courtroom,” after which the Georgia Attorney General sheepishly retreated and admitted his error. Julian glanced over and gave me a quick smile as we took our seats in the audience.  He then leaned in to whisper: “They once tried to keep me out of the Legislature and today out of the courtroom.  Good work, and thanks.”

Julian would tell this story with great relish and enthusiasm in later years, and did so when he and his wife Pam attended a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act held at our home nearly a decade later.

The nation has lost a true American hero.  In his spirit and with his courage, we will continue to fight on in the cause of justice. 

Gerry supervises the voting rights and redistricting program at CLC.